Alabama Ghost Trail III: Old Cahawba

Oct 31, 2017

        Editor’s Note: Since it is Halloween, APR brought up some stories from our archives to take a look at the haunted history of the state. This story first aired in October of 2011.

       

Old Cahaba is the site of Alabama’s first state capital.   However, after the civil war it became a ghost town. On our final stop on the state’s ghost trail, there is a concerted effort being made to preserve this historic site, and how it’s supposedly haunted past may play a role… 

St. Luke's Church at Old Cahawba Archaeological Park
Credit Stan Ingold

            Jonathan Matthews is the assistant site director at Old Cahawba historical site, and he’s leading a group on an old cotton wagon on a haunted history tour…

            “The first place we’re going is a cemetery, and I’ll drop you off there where you’ll spend about thirty minutes,…in half an hour I’ll be back to pick up the survivors.”

            It’s very dark outside at this point and the guests are lead along a candle lit pathway in the old cemetery to various stations where volunteers wait to tell some of the old ghost stories circulating around Old Cahawba…

            Tonight’s ride may sound like just a little Halloween fun. But, it’s actually a little sugar coating to help preserve what’s considered to be one of the most historic spots in Alabama…  

            “It’s interesting, because Cahawba, unlike any of the other state capitals anyway, was literally carved out of the wilderness overnight.”

            That’s Linda Derry, site director and senior archeologist at the Old Cahawba archeological park. She says Cahawba was chosen as the first “permanent” state capital for Alabama in 1818 before a city was even built. Derry says Governor William Wyatt Bibb used this to the state’s advantage…

            “He got this land, free of charge from the federal government, was given to the new state of Alabama on which to build their capital city. He designed it, he surveyed it, he auctioned it off and all the money went in to create Alabama’s state treasury. So really, the state of Alabama owes Cahawba a big debt because it financed our government.”

            Cahawba remained the capital for only six years before it was moved to Tuscaloosa.   Many people believe it was moved because of severe flooding in 1825, but Derry says that just isn’t true…

            “1825 was a drought year, there was some high water, but the town was never inundated. Those stories were blown out of proportion by the press, in the newspapers, editors of the newspapers of the Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Huntsville newspapers. And of course we know why they did that, it’s because they were competing for the state capital.”

 

The "dead line" at Castle Morgan at Old Cahawba Archaeological Park
Credit Stan Ingold

           The town was highly invested in the cotton and slave trade and in 1860 had the fourth highest per capita wealth in the whole United States. That all changed during reconstruction, and people started to leave. The trend continued and now, what is known as Old Cahawba is a ghost town.

            Efforts to preserve the site have been going on for years, but progress has been slow.  The Cahawba Advisory Committee is appointed by the governor and is charged with stewardship of the old capital. Menzo Driskell is a member this committee and a descent of Cahawba residents…

            “Some of the projects we’ve been involved in have been moving the episcopal church from martin station back to Cahawba, and recently what we’re calling the Kelly house has been in at least three or four different places in Alabama, we were able to buy it, on eBay actually and move it back to Cahaba.”

            Driskell says as a descendent, the preservation efforts mean a lot…

            “I’d love to see as many structures as we can find back at Old Cahawba and I guess if got our way we’d like to see it back the way it was in 1845 or 50.”

            Derry says while the advisory committee has helped, government funding is dwindling, so citizens are beginning to step up…

“We now have a private foundation…the Cahawba Foundation, they’re mounting a two million dollar campaign and they’ve already bought over 27 acres of land and turned it over to the citizens of Alabama”

            Derry says through various efforts they have been able to acquire nearly sixty-five percent of the originally thousand acres that made up the town.

           The Cahawba ghost tour is part of the preservation effort, and tonight’s group may have gotten more than it bargained for. The tour heads next to one of the old homes remaining in the park…when they get there, they are met by a group of paranormal investigators…

            “My name is Johnny Rushing I’m the lead investigator and the founder of central Alabama paranormal investigations”

            We met some real life ghost hunters last week during part one of our series. Those paranormal investigations tried to record what ghosts sound like. Tonight, Johnny Rushing says he did it…

                      Tours like this help spark the imagination of Alabamians like that of Selma resident Linda Andrews…

            “It was a lot of history, throughout there, a lot of stories, I didn’t have any sitings myself and we had a blast, i think it was very entertaining.”

            As the tour comes to an end guests sit around a small bon fire and hear one last round of stories.

            It’s through efforts like these that groups are trying to save what they call one of the state’s most important historical landmarks…old Cahawba…Alabama’s first state capital…