Old Cahawba sign

So today we are talking more about a ghost town with more of a spooky history than a town famous for its ghosts. The remnants of Cahawba (pronounced ca-ha-ba), now an archaeological park, are located in the deep south of Alabama, and like its catchphrase says, it is a ghost town “cloaked in mystery.”

In the 19th century, Cahawba was part of one of the richest counties in the entire United States but today it’s only inhabitants are the unmarked graves of hundreds of those that were enslaved. Their memories haunt Cahawba and those who visit it to this very day.

Listen to the episode

Listen on to this episode on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or find it on another app.

History of Old Cahawba

St Lukes in Old Cahawba, Alabama
St. Lukes in Old Cahawba, Alabama.

A city upon a hill

Just before the famous puritan John Winthrop departed for the Americas in 1630, he said in a sermon to his fellow travellers that he wished to build a “city upon a hill” that would serve as a “beacon of hope to the world.” Since then, American settlers have always attached rather lofty ambitions to their westward invasions of the North American continent. As they were speaking in the clouds, however, on the ground their conquests were usually pretty gruesome.

Fast forward to early 19th century Alabama, the founding of Cahawba is one more illustration of this. The site upon which it was built is at the confluence of two rivers whose names, the Cahawba and Alabama, come from the language of the original native inhabitants of the area, the Choctaws.

In fact, the area was the home to a succession of indigenous peoples that we know almost nothing about. The little that we do learn about them comes from a 16th century Spanish conquistador named Hernando de Soto who travelled through the area in around 1540. His explorations were an utter disaster for the indigenous people he encountered. 

Although he marveled at the settlements they had built in the area which consisted of huge earthwork structures, he also fought with them, killing thousands. Worse, his soldiers, along with the hundreds of pigs, he had brought along, spread new diseases that probably wiped out many thousands more.

Alabama

Despite the destruction by de Soto’s earlier visit to the area, by the early 19th century, there were enough Choctaw and Creek indigenous peoples in the area that the United States government had to go to war to kick them off the land before they could designate it an official territory of the United States of America. They named it Alabama in 1817.

Its first governor, a man named William Bibbs, chose Cahawba as the site for this territory’s first permanent capital, and decided to build the capital house. Not on a hill, per se, but rather right on top of an old indigenous burial mound.  

The town grew remarkably quickly. People, both free and enslaved, poured into the area. Within just a couple years, Cahawba sprang up from the indigenous mounds that served as its eerie foundations. 

An imposing brick capital building was erected along with a post office, two hotels, a theatre, numerous stores, and even two newspapers. Enslaved peoples were forced to grow cotton on the expansive plantations surrounding the city and maintained the homes of the ruling white population.

So profitable was Cahawba that even some of the enslaved quarters, one of which stands to this day, look like gilded prisons. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, in death, the enslaved were not treated with equal superficial dignity. The Cahawba graveyard designated for them is full of hundreds of souls, although very few are blessed with a gravestone in commemoration.

Misfortune strikes

As quickly as Cahawba grew, misfortunes began to befall it.

In 1819, the economic devastation of the so-called National Panic was the first body blow followed by two quick jabs of Yellow Fever in 1821 and 1822. 

For those unfamiliar, Yellow Fever is a nasty disease that was still common in the sweltering summers of the Deep South in the early 19th century. It is spread by mosquitoes that breed in areas of abundant water, such as the Cahawba and Alabama rivers. Yellow Fever, in its most severe form, attacks the liver and kidneys which, in turn, can cause suffers’ eyes and skin to turn yellow, hence its name.

The final knockout was a couple years of heavy rains that caused the Cahawba river and Alabama rivers to burst their banks and come flooding into the town. Cahawba seemed cursed. 

The first exodus

Because of these misfortunes, pressure mounted to move the capital away from Cahawba. 

In 1825, by a single vote, the state legislature decided to relocate to Tuscaloosa.  Almost immediately, residents of Cahawba started to pack up and move out. In some cases they even took their houses with them, disassembling them brick by brick.

The population of Cahawba seemingly dropped in an instant to roughly 300 people.  Still, it’s strategic location surrounded by cotton plantations and its proximity to the Cahawba and Alabama rivers saved it from total ruin. At this time anyway. 

Over the next couple decades, the town grew prosperous again. A rail line was constructed next to the town and steamboats plied the Alabama river, bringing people and goods in and taking King Cotton out.

Fambro house, one of the last remaining structures. Image by Jimmy Emerson, DVM on Flickr.

The Civil War

The town built off the backs of its slaves, however, was doomed to failure once the course of the Civil War became clear.

Just three years after the railway to Cahawba was completed, Confederate soldiers desperate to improve their supply lines dismantled it in order to complete another section of rail line connecting Selma to Demopolis.

The town was used during the civil war to hold captured Union troops. Up to 4,000 of them were interned on the grounds of a cotton warehouse. Although massively overcrowded, the prison camp was perhaps better than most in the South, as the town’s natural springs provided an abundant supply of fresh water. 

The real tragedy occurred at the end of the war when a steamship, the Sultana, that was transporting now freed union soldiers back north sank in rather spectacular fashion. 

The Sultana’s pressurized boilers, likely clogged with muddy water from the Mississippi, exploded in the middle of the night killing almost all on board. And there were a lot of people on board. Although rated for only 367 passengers the Sultana was precariously laden with over 2,000 union soldiers. Cahawba’s bad luck, it seems, had followed the poor soldiers onto the Sultana.

The second exodus 

At the end of the war a second exodus occurred when Cahawba, once the capital of the entire territory of Alabama, had its position as County Seat ripped out from underneath it. 

In 1866, nearby Selma became the capital of Dallas County and once again people left Cahawba in droves. By 1870, the population had dropped from a pre-civil war high of perhaps as many as 6,000 people, to just 400 or so.

Of this 400 the majority, over 300 were freed slaves. Because of this quick demographic reversal, for a brief period, the town was referred to derogatorily as a “Mecca of the Radical Republican Party.” Freed Black men used the abandoned state house as a meeting place to agitate for greater political and economic freedoms. 

But soon, even they abandoned the town.  By the turn of the 20th century Cahawba was a ghost town. Its once stately plantation homes were in ruins, and there was no one left to care.

Cahawba Archeological Park

For almost a 100 years, Cahawba was left to disintegrate.

Nature reclaimed it. Wide avenues became woodland paths used by deer and fishermen on their way to the Cahawba and Alabama rivers. Its mansions and store fronts fell apart, burned down, or were torn down for scrap. 

It took until 1989, for the Cahawba to be officially unincorporated as a town, So forgotten was it that it took almost a hundred years for the State of Alabama to get around to striking it off its official civic rolls. Over the years, there have been a few efforts to preserve the old town of Cahawba but until the 2000s none of them had much success. 

The town is now an Archeological Park administered by the Alabama Historical Commission. Efforts have been made to restore some of the few remaining structures such as St Luke’s Church, the Barker Slave Quarters, and Fambro House.  

In order to raise funds for these restoration efforts, the park operates a variety of activities and events. One of the most popular is its yearly haunted history tour. This is the only time that visitors are allowed into the town at night. 

If its rather gruesome history of indigenous expulsions, slavery, and just plain bad luck, aren’t enough to scare you off there are others stories of floating orbs, popularly called will-o-the-wisps that appear and follow anyone who dares go to the town after dusk.  

Old Cahawba sign
Old Cahawba sign. Image by Jimmy Emerson, DVM on Flickr.

Visiting Old Cahawba

If spooky old ghosts in the deep south are your thing, getting to Cahawba isn’t difficult. The archeological park is located just 20 minutes outside of Selma which, in turn, is located about two hours from Alabama’s biggest international airport in Birmingham.

Selma itself is a town of great historical significance. 

The “Bloody Sunday” protests on March the 7th of 1965 were a turning point in the Civil Rights movement in the United States. So if you’re headed that way, why not combine a trip to Cahawba with a little historical tour of Selma itself? Especially because it’s the best city to base yourself in for a visit to Cahawba.

However, timing your trip to Selma is important if you want to go on the famous “Haunted History Tour,” since it only runs for a couple of nights every year in the Fall.  Check out their website for up-to-date information, but it is usually on a Saturday night in October. 

As part of the tour you get to go around with the cool sounding Alabama Paranormal Research Group as they employ their ghost detecting equipment.  Who knows maybe you will encounter that floating orb everyone talks about. Or maybe some angry indigenous souls will arise out of their desecrated mounds! 

By day there are also a number of activities you might be able to do in the area. The Archaeological Park with its visitor’s center is open daily. If you’re particularly active, why not take a guided canoe tour of the Cahawba river?  Check in with the Cahawba River Society to see when they are operating. 

After working up an appetite on the river you should definitely check out the historic Lannie’s BBQ Spot. It’s been around for over 50 years and was an important meeting place for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The place is tiny, however, so it might be best to plan for a takeaway. For a place to stay there are a few chain-style hotels in Selma but also the Historic St. James Hotel built in 1837 might be the perfect way to end your history-filled days.

Over at good ole Tripadvisor most people who visit the Archeological park find it to be, as Wookie1434 says “very neat.” However, one grumpy poster, giuseppe0057, said rather paradoxically that it was “Amazing but not much to see.”  It must be great to be amazed at “not much!” To add to his possible amazement, the Griffith family calls it a “work in progress.”

If you do make your way out there, be sure to let us know how it is!

Looking for spooky walks down history lane? Check these out:

  • The San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, has a history worth hearing.
  • Learn about the most infamous pirate queens to lurk on the seven seas.
  • Hang out with our good friend Lockey and a few other water-dwelling monsters.
  • Visit the Oregon coast for a spooky lighthouse tale.

The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with this information themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:


The Lady Dicks was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion and Tae Haahr. “The Ghost Town of Old Cahawba, Alabama” was written by Justin Krause, produced by Tae Haahr, and edited by Rory Joy. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.

Written by

Justin Krause

Justin Kraus is a historian and educator. Since he could legally leave the house, he has been off writing and traveling around world. He is a bit older now but still learning. If you want to learn with him or have him write something up for you, he can be reached at kraus.justin@gmail.com.