The Lost Capitals

Archaeologists and historians are rediscovering and reimagining two long-abandoned Alabama towns

I'm standing in a graveyard, and it's hotter than the hinges of hell. This isn't a cemetery of headstones and crypts but a boneyard of thwarted ambition containing the remains of a town that doesn't exist anymore. The streets that made up this territorial capital no longer boast any houses or other structures. Trees rise where taverns stood, and the once-swarming population is no more—replaced by teeming insects.

I've come on a sun-baked July day to Old St. Stephens Historical Park in southwestern Alabama, situated on the limestone bluffs above the Tombigbee River, roughly an hour north of Mobile. My guide is Jim Long, the park director and a gifted raconteur. Through his animated descriptions, St. Stephens' main drag comes to life: Tall pines and oaks morph into a crowded thoroughfare called High Street filled with hotels, a theater, a bank, and a federal land office bustling with settlers.

"You can't tell the story of Alabama without starting here," he says. It's a pioneering tale from when this was the Wild West—a story distinctly different from the narrative "built on the backs of slavery" for which the state is better known.

Long stoops to pluck a fragment of blue-and-white china from the dirt road—a sherd of tableware, perhaps, from the Globe Hotel, focus of an ongoing series of digs overseen by an archaeologist from the University of South Alabama. Teams of volunteers sifting through the soil have uncovered abundant artifacts of high living: bone-handled cutlery, goblets, parasol parts, even a silver pen.

St. Stephens quickly developed from a frontier outpost into a brick-and-mortar town of 2,500, and was named capital of the Alabama Territory in 1817. Flaunting a patina of sophistication and a "prevailing indifference to anything that savored of religion," as a former resident recalled, it just as swiftly fell to ruin. By 1825, the combined effects of politics, upriver expansion, and yellow fever epidemics had reduced its population by two-thirds. Some blame the curse of itinerant preacher Lorenzo Dow, run out of town in 1820, who proclaimed "the bats and owls will inherit the city and make it their home." St. Stephens was abandoned in the 1850s, proving Dow right.

About 70 miles to the northeast, in the center of the state, lies another lost capital called Old Cahawba, now an archaeological park. Located where the gentle Cahaba River empties into the muddy Alabama, it was carved out of the wilderness by Gov. William Wyatt Bibb, and served as the new state's first permanent capital from 1820 to 1826, before the honor migrated to Tuscaloosa and eventually on to Montgomery.

Once known for rampant gunplay, Cahawba developed midcentury into an elegant and prosperous cotton port with some 5,000 residents. But a devastating flood in 1865 and the removal of the county seat to nearby Selma one year later led to its downfall. Today the landscape is nearly as barren as that of St. Stephens, with only a few stately columns, grave sites, and outbuildings left to suggest that wealthy planters maintained lavish lifestyles here, constructing palatial homes as evidence of their prosperity.

Both lost capitals, St. Stephens and Cahawba, were witnesses to Alabama's birth. And yet, as groundwork is being laid to celebrate the anniversaries of historic events under a statewide program called "Becoming Alabama," the parks are struggling for the recognition crucial to their survival.

History and legends aside, the sites suffer from relative obscurity. Yes, they are popular with naturalists, archaeologists, genealogists, and school groups, but neither has the standing structures to attract busloads of casual tourists. State funding keeps the doors open—barely—but drastic budget cuts since 2003 have undermined potential improvements that could bring more visitors. And despite critical support from a few saviors in the private sector, such as Daniel Meador, a Cahawba descendant and head of the Cahaba Foundation, more help is needed. The viability of both sites depends on whether they can capture a new brand of enthusiast—one who will appreciate both the landscape and the wealth of history that lies beneath this sun-baked soil.

This is an excerpt from the July/August issue.

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