|The "Crocheron Columns" of Old Cahawba.|
(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “Old Cahawba: Where the ghosts of the past still roam” was originally published in the Aug. 1, 2002 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)
A few days back I was in Selma. On my way back home, I decided to ride by and visit again the site of old Cahawba, our first state capital. Not a lot of activity is taking place around the old capital site at this time, other than those like myself who came to visit and travel the trails that takes one back in time.
Cahawba didn’t appear on the scene with the coming of the early settler. As early as 2,500 years ago, Indians occupied the area where the two rivers join. In the month of September 1540, the Spanish explorer DeSoto visited the large village located there between the two rivers. He was on his way south where he would cross what is now the Alabama River at the present site of the community of Claiborne, right here in our own Monroe County.
This area was quite important to the early Indian due to its location and that they were able to travel the two rivers in their canoes. It was a large trading center among the early inhabitants of the villages along the rivers and the higher ground to the north and west. The low bottom lands near the large streams were filled with wild game and the rivers flourished with fish. But the good life that the Indians enjoyed between the two rivers was soon to change.
In 1819, the state of Alabama would make its debut from out of the wilderness. From the territorial capital at St. Stephens, Cahawba was to become our first state capital. The area of that time was an undeveloped town site. The land where the capital was to be located was a gift from our then current president James Monroe. Due to the lack of building and living quarters at the new capital, the Alabama legislature was forced to find temporary accommodations in Huntsville until a statehouse could be built. By 1820, however, Cahawba had come into full swing. It was a fully functioning state capital.
But, Cahawba would never enjoy the full popularity of a state capital. The low areas along the rivers gave it a reputation of flooding and being mosquito infested. Those that opposed the selection of Cahawba as the new state capital used this reputation to force a vote in the state legislature that it be moved to another location. Tuscaloosa and the town of Claiborne were to be voted on for the new capital. The town of Claiborne, that rested along the high bluffs of the river, right here in our own county, missed being chosen the capital by only one vote in the legislature. The new capital was now the city of Tuscaloosa. After the moving of the capital in 1826, within weeks, the town of Cahawba was nearly abandoned.
The town was not ready to give up yet. The flooding and malaria had been greatly exaggerated by Cahawba’s opponents. The town would recover and reestablish itself as a social and commercial center. Cahawba became the major distribution point for cotton shipped down the Alabama River from the fertile “black belt” to the port of Mobile. Then the addition of a railroad line in 1859 triggered a building boom on the eve of the dreaded Civil War. Over 3,000 people were to call Cahawba home.
But, the glory days of Cahawba were again to be short lived. The dreaded Civil War was fast approaching on the horizon. The Confederate government would seize Cahawba’s railroad. They would tear up the iron rails and use them to extend another railroad nearby. The army of the Confederacy would locate a Union army prisoner of war camp on the old capital site. They would send over 3,000 Union prisoners of war here into the lice and mosquito infected prison. Many died from disease and hunger there in the prison.
More tragedies were yet to strike another death blow to the now dying town. In 1865, a flood would almost destroy the town of Cahawba. Because of the high waters, the county seat was moved to Selma. Businesses and families followed. Within 10 years, even the houses of Cahawba were being dismantled and moved to the new county seat.
The old abandoned courthouse became a meeting place during the Reconstruction period for freedmen seeking new political power. Cahawba became the “Mecca of the Radical Republican Party.” A new rural community of 70 former slave families replaced the old urban center. These families turned the vacant town blocks into two-acre fields. But Cahawba’s troubles were not over yet; this community of former slaves was to disappear also. By 1900, the town that was once the capital of Alabama had almost faded from the countryside. Most of the buildings had been dismantled or burned. Only local fishermen and hunters walked the abandoned streets of the old capital. Many of the artesian wells that were located within the capital city had disappeared from the area: today only one or two remain.
Not much remains of what was once the capital city. Today, nature has reclaimed much of the streets and open land of the old town between the rivers. As one walks the old abandoned streets and views the few remaining markers of certain important locations, a feeling of sadness comes over one. While visiting the lone “Crocheron Columns” or the site of “Castle Morgan,” which was the site of the Union prison camp, the ghosts of another time seem to call out from the shadows and beg to be remembered.
And those that sleep beneath the broken and fallen tombs in the old cemeteries seem to cry from the shadows; from their place in another time, they too wish to be remembered. The old slave cemetery, abandoned until recently, speaks too of hardships and misery. The old town of Cahawba is truly a ghost town of the past. A place where the ghosts of another era still walk the abandoned streets and drink from the ancient wells and wait for that time when the old capital will flourish again from the pages of history of the past. The words of a former resident, Anna Gayle Fry said that “The ghosts of Cahawba will never be still.”
(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born to Vincent William Singleton and Frances Cornelia Faile Singleton, during a late-night thunderstorm, on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County, graduated from Sweet Water High School in 1946, served as a U.S. Marine paratrooper in the Korean War, worked as a riverboat deckhand, lived for a time among Apache Indians, moved to Monroe County on June 28, 1964 and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from June 28, 1964 to Dec. 14, 1987. He was promoted from the enlisted ranks to warrant officer in May 1972. For years, Singleton’s columns, titled “Monroe County history – Did you know?” and “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. It’s believed that his first column appeared in the March 25, 1971 edition of The Monroe Journal. He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)