Exploring Old Cahawba Archaeological Park

Arthur house, Old Cahawba Archaeological Park
Arthur house, Old Cahawba Archaeological Park Larry Bell
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Old Cahawba Archaeological Park in Orrville, Alabama, is not your typical hiking destination. Once a thriving antebellum town and the first official state capital of Alabama, Cahawba was destroyed by a flood in 1865 and abandoned.

In the 1920s, archaeologists discovered the town’s original footprint and began preserving structures and uncovering ones that were thought to be long gone. The site was turned over to the Alabama Historical Commission in 1975 to further protect and preserve Cahawba’s unusual history.

Over the decades, an air of mystery developed around the abandoned town, and stories emerged that the place was haunted. Known as “Alabama’s Most Famous Ghost Town,” Cahawba is open to the public, and you can walk the town’s long-dormant dusty streets to get a feel for the past and perhaps even encounter the ghostly form of a former resident.

A Brief History

Not long after the end of the Creek Indian War in 1819, Alabama became the nation’s 22nd state and was in need of a state capital. At the time, Cahawba was a major cotton distribution center. Its location at the confluence of the state’s two largest rivers, the Alabama and Cahaba, made it the perfect shipping port for cotton growers to send their goods downstream on steamers to Mobile. From the Gulf of Mexico, the cotton was exported to various other countries.

Meeting in Huntsville, the first official state legislature decided to move what was then the territorial capital of Alabama from St. Stephens to Cahawba and make it the state capital.

But there were two problems—mosquitoes and flooding. The town suffered through numerous yellow fever outbreaks, so much so that by 1826 the legislature relocated the capital to Tuscaloosa and eventually Montgomery.

The town, however, continued to survive even after the move with cotton driving its economy. When a railroad line was added, the population grew to 3,000 in 1859. At the outbreak of the Civil War, a Confederate POW camp was also established in Cahawba.

The death knell for the town came in 1865 when a massive flood destroyed the city. Instead of rebuilding, the population moved on, and Cahawba was reclaimed by nature. That is, until the early 1900s when archaeologists gave new life to the place.

Walking the Park

Yes, you can easily drive the dirt roads of Old Cahawba, but the best way to take in the beautiful bottomland forest and nearby rivers and soak in the history is to walk a nice five-mile loop.

As you amble down the many side roads to points of interest, you will get a true sense of what life was like back in 1819 when Cahawba was a bustling town with shops, schools, and churches. Expect to spend a good two or three hours wandering the grounds.

Start your journey at the park’s gift shop and administration building and pick up a brochure that shows you the layout of the park and its historic features. Park personnel will be more than happy to talk with you about the town’s history and point out things you shouldn’t miss. Plus, you can visit the park website for dates of guided tours.

What You’ll Experience

Along the back roads of Old Cahawba, you’ll visit the remains of Castle Morgan, an old fireplace that marks the former location of a Confederate POW camp. Tragically, the camp was designed to only house 660 prisoners, but by 1865 it held more than 3,000. Conditions in the camp were deplorable, with polluted water and only one fireplace to warm the men in winter. Later that year, 1,700 Union prisoners were released from the camp and sent home on the paddle wheeler Sultana which suffered a boiler explosion, killing nearly 1,200 of its 2,100 passengers.

Your visit will also take you to two cemeteries—the New Cemetery and the Negro Burial Ground. The latter was established in 1819 as a slave cemetery with burials continuing until 1957. As you tour the grounds, note the stark difference between the two cemeteries, as the Negro Burial Ground has very unassuming tombstones, while the New Cemetery sports very ornate markers.

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Next, your walk takes you to what’s left of the Crocheron Mansion, with its massive circular brick columns. In 1865, following the Battle of Selma, Confederate General Forrest and Union General Wilson met here for a few hours to discuss prisoner exchanges over cigars and drinks.

Along the walking route, there are many more points of interest, including the town’s one-room schoolhouse, its Methodist Church, the Fambro-Arthur House, and the Baker Slave Quarters at the Kirkpatrick Mansion.

Ghostly Encounters

As you walk the dirt roads of Cahawba, you might have the added thrill of encountering one of the town’s past residents. Over the years, visitors have reported seeing objects appear and disappear, children laughing, disembodied voices, and a little ghostly practical joking.

The story goes that at one time long ago a slave would randomly steal keys from people around town. Fast forward to present day Cahawba when one day a park staff member visited the New Cemetery with a group of paranormal investigators. When they returned to the park office they noticed they were missing their keys. Later that day, another staffer walked in and handed over the keys saying that he found them in the old Negro Burial Ground.

Creepy, huh? Enjoy your visit.

Written by Joe Cuhaj for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.

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