Spanish moss dangles from trees and blows in the wind – an eerie reminder of the life that once thrived in Cahaba, Alabama. This former state capital is now a just ruin, and small markers are all that’s left of the long-forgotten homes, church and courthouse that once stood here. Yes, nowadays Cahaba is a ghost town – and one with lots of frightening stories to tell, too.
It’s worth noting, however, that debate rages about exactly what constitutes a ghost town. Some believe, for instance, that such places shouldn’t have any remnants of the buildings that once stood there. Others say, by contrast, that a settlement isn’t deemed worthy of being called a ghost town if it doesn’t contain clear ruins.
Perhaps one of the most poetic descriptions of ghost towns, though, comes by way of author Lambert Florin, who labeled each as being “a shadowy semblance of a former self.” But while the precise definition of ghost towns remains debatable, the reasons that said places may come to be have more or less stayed the same for years. For starters, economic activity – or lack thereof – may cause a once-booming locale to eventually empty out.
In fact, many a ghost town was once known as a “boomtown.” This term is used to describe a location that sees the discovery of a source of profitable activity – such as a nearby mine, for instance. This in turn boosts the population of the area. However, as soon as the location’s resource or industry disappears, the people who once inhabited its buildings often follow suit. And what’s sometimes left behind in the aftermath is a ghost town.
Similarly, changes made to an area’s infrastructure can divert people away from one town in favor of another. This phenomenon occurred along the famous Route 66, for instance; as interstates 44 and 40 proved to be faster options for motorists, so some communities along Route 66 eventually became deserted. And ghost towns have emerged alongside railroad tracks that have now fallen out of use, too.
Other ghost towns, by contrast, have more sinister origins. Massacres as a result of war, for instance, may leave communities totally empty. What’s more, natural disasters – whether predicted or not – may similarly render places unlivable. Take the Italian village of Craco, for example, from where residents escaped in the wake of a landslide in 1963 – and never returned.
And human-created disasters may also leave people with no choice but to turn the places that they call home into ghost towns. Nuclear radiation emitted during the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, for example, forced residents to abandon almost 200 communities in both Ukraine and Belarus. In fact, the contamination remains so dangerous that a large number of these individuals have never been able to go back to the homes that they had left behind.
However, in the case of Cahaba, Alabama – also known as Old Cahawba – it was flood waters that caused the locals to leave. You see, not only did the town sit in the lowlands, but the Alabama and Cahaba rivers also met there – making water breaching the banks a relatively common occurrence. And yet despite Cahaba’s problematic geography, it was selected as the state’s capital in 1818.
Then, in October of the following year, Alabama governor William Wyatt Bibb announced the official plans for the structure of Cahaba. In particular, he revealed that the new town’s roads would follow a grid layout, with north-to-south streets being named after different types of tree and those running east to west taking on the monikers of notable historical figures. And, Bibb explained, the capital would also have its own statehouse.
In 1820, then, Cahaba was officially the capital of Alabama. Yet the town had its detractors: some expressed concern that its frequent flooding posed danger to locals, for instance, while others worried that mosquitoes were carrying disease through the area. Opponents even petitioned to remove Cahaba as state capital. And this endeavor ultimately proved to be a successful one, as in 1826 the title was given to Tuscaloosa instead.
Still, Cahaba’s fate wasn’t sealed just yet. The town’s location actually proved to be an industrial advantage, you see – despite the potential for floods. That’s because Cahaba also sits in Alabama’s Black Belt – a fertile stretch of land with a dark layer of rich topsoil, and so ideal conditions in which to grow crops.
Thanks to the land in the area, then, Cahaba was perfectly situated to take part in the cotton distribution chain. From the former state capital, the crop traveled down the Alabama River to Mobile, a city on the Gulf of Mexico. And in doing so, cotton farmers and merchants in Cahaba made enough money to build large, two-story homes that boldly displayed their wealth.
In 1859 the railroad made its way to Cahaba, too, further stoking the town’s growth. In fact, just before the Civil War broke out, the ex-state capital counted 2,000 individuals as citizens. And nearly two-thirds of the people living in Cahaba at that time were African-American slaves – most of whom worked on the plantations.
But when the Civil War began, things swiftly changed for Cahaba. For one thing, the newly formed Confederate government took over the town’s railway, removed its iron tracks and used these to extend another stretch of nearby road that would be of more help to the military efforts. What’s more, an in-town warehouse – crucial to Cahaba’s cotton trade – was transformed into a prison for Union soldiers between 1863 and 1865.
And if that weren’t bad enough, Cahaba’s age-old problem then reared its head once more. That’s right: the town suffered a massive flood in 1865, which affected both the locals and the prisoners of war who were being kept in the warehouse. As a result, then, Confederate and Union leaders convened in Cahaba to strike a deal in which they exchanged the prisoners whom each side had captured in the Battle of Selma.
The Battle of Selma had occurred during the concluding phase of the Civil War, as May 1865 saw the official end to the national conflict. And the following year, Alabama’s state legislature decided to move the Dallas county seat – which up until this point had remained in Cahaba – to the town of Selma, thus marking the beginning of Cahaba’s decline.
Meanwhile, once the county seat had relocated, any remaining government-related companies and the people who worked for them also left town. After that, it only took a decade for many of Cahaba’s buildings – including homes and places of worship – to be taken apart and moved elsewhere. In 1870, then, only 431 people still called the community their home.
Of these 431 residents, more than 300 were freedmen and women – former slaves who had earned their freedom in the wake of the Civil War. And for a time, they stuck around and farmed the deserted blocks of Cahaba, turning empty lots into fields and gardens. But these individuals, too, eventually left.
So it was that the end of the 19th century also marked the demise of much of what was once Cahaba. At that time, a freedman bought the location for $500 and had most of the town’s buildings destroyed. He then gathered the materials and shipped them to busier cities such as Selma and Mobile, where growing communities could reuse them. And as such, the majority of the structures in Cahaba had disappeared by 1903.
During much of the 1900s, meanwhile, the only activity that Cahaba saw was the passing of hunters and fisherman through the area as they pursued their outdoor hobbies. In the 1980s, however, historians started to take notice of Cahaba again. They even discussed restoring the former town – although many of its buildings, of course, had been dismantled and sold.
It must be said, though, that some physical remnants of Cahaba’s past did get left behind. A private home, which was built in 1841, still exists in the ghost town – as does a former slave house. Visitors can also check out the chimneys that once warmed the warehouse-turned-prison. And there are several cemeteries and wells to be found in this deserted place, too.
On top of that, there are now signs that stand in the former sites of various vanished structures in Cahaba. These include markers for a church, a courthouse and a drug store, among other lost treasures. And although there aren’t many intact buildings left in this forgotten place, there’s still plenty to stoke the imagination – especially when it comes to the eerie tales that have emerged from its silent streets.
One such ghostly story involves a young boy called Herbert Kilpatrick, who apparently once visited his grandfather in Cahaba. And when Herbert returned home at the end of that summer, he purportedly told his family about a man named Gatt. In particular, the child claimed that Gatt would supervise him while he explored his grandfather’s property. Yet Herbert’s brother informed him that this would have been impossible. Why? Well, Gatt had died years previously.
Another Cahaba ghost tale is set in the midst of the Civil War. A man known as Colonel Christopher Claudius “C.C.” Pegues had made his home in Cahaba sometime during the 1800s; he had also made a name for himself by turning his house into the social center of the town. But in 1861 the conflict began, and the colonel duly heeded the call to join the Confederate army.
Then a year later, as the tale goes, a couple were taking a walk around Cahaba, during which they found themselves navigating the thick cedars that stood behind Colonel Pegues’ home. And there they supposedly saw a flicker of white light dancing over the path. The strange glow even apparently got so near that the couple tried to touch it – but the ghostly object would disappear each time they approached.
Little did the people of Cahaba know, however, that the eerie ball of light may have been there to tell them something. You see, sad news from the battlefield had yet to reach the town; Colonel Pegues had perished in the war. And some residents thus put two and two together, believing that the orb that had been hovering near the soldier’s home was in fact his spirit.
Other locals, meanwhile, saw the haunting light as an omen. You see, although the orb apparently shone brightly, moved and bounced, it would then quickly vanish from view. And as we already know, Cahaba would eventually meet the same sad fate. Today, some people therefore believe that the spectral object’s purpose was actually to foreshadow the town’s dismal decline.
Another of Cahaba’s most infamous ghost stories relates a violent encounter that took place in the center of the town in 1856 – a few years before the Civil War broke out. The tale revolves around Pleas, a slave who served Cahaba local John Bell. And according to Anna M. Gayle Fry’s 1905 book, Memories of Old Cahaba, certain people in the community had rather negative opinions of Pleas.
To some residents, Fry explained, Pleas was “notoriously bad.” The author also said that a Mr. E.M. Perine had “sold [Pleas] to young John Bell because of his uncontrollable conduct.” But the Bells apparently had a completely different impression of the slave. They found him instead to be “bright” and “smart,” adding that he was “so efficient a servant that, despite his bad reputation, he became a great favorite with the [family].”
Trouble started brewing, however, when a string of robberies took place in Cahaba, after which locals began to point the finger at poor Pleas. And Bell, it’s believed, took the accusation particularly personally. Fry explained, “In those days, to accuse a gentleman’s servant of crime – especially a favorite servant – was regarded almost as great an insult as to accuse the gentleman himself.”
Fry continued, “A master would fight in defense of his slaves as quickly as he would in defense of his children – hence no one dared make public the accusation.” Still, Cahaba resident Dr. Troy could no longer hold his tongue after his house had suspiciously burned down. And tensions continued to grow when, a few days afterwards, local Judge Bird’s home also erupted in flames.
Because Dr. Troy suspected Pleas had set the fires, he apparently felt as though Bell had had a hand in the crimes, too. And so he filed a suit in court against Bell for damages, which provoked a bloody conflict to unfold in the center of Cahaba. Subsequently, Bell arrived at Dr. Troy’s office with weapons – a hickory stick and a pistol, no less – in hand.
Bell’s brother Charles is said to have appeared on the scene, too, shooting his pistol as he approached the medic’s office. Then the Bell brothers’ father, John, reportedly joined in the fray. But Dr. Troy had fighters in his corner, too – Judge Bird and Dr. Hunter, a relative by marriage, also with firearms at the ready.
Cahaba residents who weren’t involved in the shootout are said to have closed their shutters and hunkered down in terror as the men fired at each other. And according to accounts, two men lay dead at the end of the fight: Bell himself and his father, John. The rest of the perpetrators had walked away unscathed, although all of them were subsequently arrested for their part in the murderous scene.
Then, in the early 1990s – around 140 years after the deadly shootout – ghost hunters claimed that they’d received word from beyond the grave from Pleas regarding that fateful day. According to the Selma Times-Journal, paranormal investigators had come to Cahaba to see what they could discover in the deserted, historic town. And their equipment reportedly recorded a message in the old Cahaba graveyard.
Historical archaeologist Linda Derry was investigating alongside the ghost hunters when they excitedly played back the so-called electronic voice phenomenon – that is, a recording that captures an unexplained and potentially paranormal uttering. As Derry recalled to the paper, “[The voice] said clear as a bell, ‘Don, key.’” Hearing the name Don didn’t surprise her either, she added, since her team’s maintenance supervisor was called Don.
Plus, according to Derry, Don was no stranger to hearing unexplained voices, meaning the message didn’t actually shock anyone. The inclusion of the word “key” struck her as “interesting,” though, since it seemed to come out of nowhere. But the next morning, Derry and the rest of the team figured out the message that the voice was trying to relay.
You see, Don simply could not figure out where he had left his keys. When Derry told Don about the peculiar message that she had heard on the recording, then, he chose to head off in search of the items in question.
Reportedly, Don finally located his keys later that day in a very poignant location: the slave cemetery. And even more suspiciously, he apparently found them near Pleas’ grave. This could have been more than mere coincidence, too, since the slave had once been accused of breaking into homes and stealing – you guessed it – keys for the Bell family.
It’s fair to say, then, that the empty ruins of Cahaba are home to more than their share of eerie tales. And to Derry, these creepy stories serve as haunting reminders of the rich yet heartbreaking history of the South. The historian told The New York Times in 2008, “The spirit of the past is not going to hold still. It’s part of our identity. It’s that tension between loss and resurrection. It’s part of being Southern.” As for Cahaba, while the town may be abandoned, it’s certainly not forgotten – for now, at least.