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Amid the Ghosts of Alabama

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sarah Kershaw
April 18, 2008

SOUTHERNERS have a particular fascination with the spirits of the past.

Ghosts dance through the history of Dixie, and travelers to places like the small towns of rural Alabama can usually find that local residents are as passionate about storytelling as they are about a crawfish boil in the spring, or more so.

Agee Broughton has quite a few stories to tell.

He lives in one of the last remaining homes of a town called Claiborne, a largely abandoned speck of land at a fork in a road on the Alabama River, about an hour and a half’s drive northeast of Mobile. It was a thriving port surrounded by cotton gins in the early to mid 1800s.

“You never know when something new is going to turn up,” said Mr. Broughton, 50, whose great-grandparents and grandparents lived in Claiborne and who has, for 30 years, slowly pieced together the history of the town. “The sad thing is there’s so little of it left.”

He lives in one of the only houses still standing within the boundaries of Claiborne proper, where all that remains besides them is an overgrown river landing and three 18th-century cemeteries. His was once the home of an early Alabama legislator, James Dellet, built in 1835, where an attic full of archives on Claiborne was later discovered.

While the phrase “ghost town” is more likely to evoke the Old West, with visions of gun-slinging cowboys, the South has its fair share of abandoned hamlets and disappeared places of commerce and life in past centuries.

And there, particularly for those travelers interested in visiting the many places along the way that chronicle the Civil War and other chapters of Southern history, walking in the shadows of the deserted towns is a journey through a rich, tortured and haunting history.

One could even say that ghosts have a special place in Southern history, given that most of America’s deadliest war was fought on that soil.

“The spirit of the past is not going to hold still,” said Linda Derry, a historical archaeologist and the site manager of Old Cahaba, the best known Alabama ghost town “It’s part of our identity. It’s that tension between loss and resurrection. It’s part of being Southern.”

A growing number of Southern towns are raising money, public and private, to dig up the remains of their ghost towns, restore the artifacts and buildings and promote them as tourist attractions, in areas like central and southwest Alabama, where state and local tourism officials are also promoting fishing, hunting and birding.

Below are three ghost towns that are within two hours’ drive of Mobile and Birmingham, and all can be visited on a road trip between the two.

Claiborne

Like other towns around the rivers of Alabama, Claiborne, which had a population of roughly 5,000 at its peak in the 1820s and 1830s, was struck by yellow fever and cholera.

The Civil War also struck a heavy blow to Claiborne. Alabama was one of the last areas occupied by Union soldiers, and after the war ended, in April 1865, thousands looted the town for days, leaving little behind, Mr. Broughton said.

By the 1870s, Claiborne was still a shipping point on the river, but the school was gone, the churches were gone, the merchants were moving out and the population was dwindling. Then in the early 1900s a railroad came through Monroe County, bypassing Claiborne and spelling doom for the town’s shipping mainstay, the moving of cotton by steamboat along the river.

Mr. Broughton gives unofficial tours of two original Claiborne buildings, which have been restored and which were both relocated to nearby Perdue Hill, a mile and a half from Claiborne proper. Occasionally there are historic-home tours of a dozen other 19th-century homes in the Claiborne area.

Mr. Broughton can usually be found in his gas station and general store in Perdue Hill, next to the old Claiborne Masonic Hall, which was used as a courtroom, town hall, church and school and was moved from Claiborne in 1884. It has been restored and is open for tours, when Mr. Broughton is available to give them.

He can also give tours by appointment, which can be made through the Monroe County Heritage Museums (251-575-7433), in Monroeville, 14 miles east of Claiborne. The museums provide tours of the courthouse in Monroeville, the model for the courtroom scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and their Web site is www.tokillamockingbird.com.

One of Claiborne’s great gems, a house that was also moved to Perdue Hill, is the home of William B. Travis, who practiced law in Claiborne but left in 1831 to fight in the Texas Revolution. Colonel Travis went on to become the Texan commander at the Battle of the Alamo, and died there. Inside the tiny clapboard house, Travis’s original desk and chair and other period furniture is set up as it was when he lived and worked there.

St. Stephens

An hour’s drive northwest from Claiborne is the former town center of St. Stephens, which is modestly marked with a small turn-off sign on Route 43, and lies at the end of a long and winding five-mile road. Local historians and officials in St. Stephens, which is now centered a few miles west, have only recently begun, through archaeological digs and historical research, to discover what lies beneath the soil where St. Stephens was incorporated in 1811.

Today, not a single building remains. The site is a wooded park filled with dogwoods and redbuds, flowering in the spring, along with honeysuckle blossoms.

Archaeologists are finding herringbone brick patterns from the sidewalks, gold and silver brooches, silver pen nibs and more, according to Jim Long, director of the St. Stephens Historical Commission.

Booming during the early 19th century, and strategically situated along the Tom Bigby River, St. Stephens was at its height a lively town of 2,000 people, 500 houses, 34 licensed saloons and several hotels, and its residents enjoyed opera, theater and a racetrack, according to local historians.

The town was the first capital of territorial Alabama. Local residents like to call it “a who’s who of early Alabama,” and the town’s motto is “Where Alabama Began.”

The capital was later moved to a more central location, Cahaba, in 1820, a big blow to St. Stephens, which later contended with yellow fever. By the Civil War, the town had all but disappeared, and many of the brick buildings were demolished for Confederate soldiers’ use in building salt works.

The abandoned town now lies within Old St. Stephens Historical Park (www.oldststephens.com), a somewhat run-down 200-acre site that has struggled with a series of state budget cuts but that offers camping, recreational vehicle parking, bird watching, fishing (for bass, catfish and crappie) and swimming in a 100-acre quarry lake.

Along a half-mile stretch of walking trail, the local historical commission has recreated the scene of the 19th-century town during its heyday in words: dozens of newspaper advertisements have been reproduced and stamped onto metal plaques, placed around the site of the old town where the businesses advertised were thought to have stood. There are also signs with the original street names. One marks the site of the Douglas Hotel, where the first Territorial Legislature met. Another marks the site where a traveling preacher, Lorenzo Dow, held meetings.

“He wears his hair long and flowing and his beard unshorn in imitation of the Apostles!” the plaque says. “His dress is mean, his voice harsh, his gestures and delivery ungrateful in the extreme.”

Cahaba

St. Stephens’s loss — as the territorial capital of Alabama — was Cahaba’s gain. Cahaba (the ghost town is known as Old Cahawba) was the first permanent state capital, from 1820 to 1825.

Today, Cahaba, a 20-minute drive from Selma, is a creepy, spooky, tourist-friendly ghost town and an important archaeological site with a vivid history and, if you believe the local folklore, active ghosts (www.cahawba.com).

It sits at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers, and it was plagued by continual flooding, which was said to be the reason the capital was moved to Tuscaloosa in 1826. Still, it was a major distribution point for cotton shipped down the Alabama River, and it had a large slave population, historians say. Cahaba has both a slave burial ground and a cemetery for the old town’s white residents, both of which are featured on a map available at the entrance to Cahaba for a self-guided tour of the sprawling grounds.

The relocation of the capital was a nail in Cahaba’s coffin. But it was the Civil War and Abolition that really did in the town, which had 3,000 residents as the war began. During the war, the Confederate government seized the railroad, and a large cotton warehouse was turned into a prison for 3,000 Union soldiers.

In 1865, another flood washed over Cahaba, the prison was a lice-infested mess, the war ended and a year later the county seat was moved to Selma. Soon, businesses and families were leaving, and within a decade churches and houses were being taken down.

But Cahaba, unlike some of the other abandoned Southern towns, had an interesting, if brief, resurrection. During Reconstruction, freed slaves returned to the town and formed a new community of 70 former slave families. They turned the vacant town into fields and gardens and held raucous meetings at the abandoned courthouse, as the town became known as the “Mecca of the Radical Republican Party.”

But by the early 1900s, that community disappeared. The town remained abandoned, except for the fishermen and hunters who passed through its streets, until the late 1980s, when historians began to take an interest in reviving it.

For a ghost town that has not been heavily restored, there is quite a bit to see in Cahaba. A private home, built in 1841, still stands, if precariously, though it is cordoned off because money has not been raised yet to restore it.

A slave quarters also remains, along with remnants of chimneys from the prison, known as Castle Morgan, several wells and the two cemeteries. There are also markers throughout the grounds, as in St. Stephens, indicating the sites of a drug store, a church, the courthouse and town businesses.

Cahaba, where large swaths of Spanish moss hang from the oak trees, the wind blowing the moss onto chimney stubs, columns, wells and other ruins of the town, is a popular destination not only for ghost-town hunters but for those with an interest in the paranormal.

Ms. Derry said that the town, in conjunction with Selma, holds annual “haunted nights,” giving tours of the ruins and standing structures, and that ghost-hunter groups pay visits with their ghost-hunting equipment.

There was one recent glitch with the effort to promote Cahaba as a tourist attraction. Two years ago the visitor’s center was struck by lightning and burned down; the temporary visitor’s center is quite modest, a one-room building at the entrance to the town.

Ms. Derry said it seemed that Cahaba had been struck by lightning an inordinate amount. They call it the curse of Cahaba.

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