Memories of Old Cahaba
© 1905 Anna M. Gayle Fry
I live perhaps fifteen miles from the conjunction of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers, where once sat a booming and stately city — home to the Alabama legislature and the county courthouse, and a center of commerce. That city is gone. If you visit it today, you will find a stray chimney, some columns amidst overgrown wilderness near the Cahaba river, and crumbling slave quarters. Dirt lanes pass through fields of green, dotted by the occasional signpost to tell visitors of the town that was — for Cahaba is long-dead, a ghost town.
My childhood memories of visiting the place are compelling: I recall a landscape dotted by decaying ruins, streets flanked by leafy trees, the limbs of which hung low from the Spanish moss and moved gently in the breeze. The place seemed eerie, as if ghosts walked it during the middle of the day. I decided to visit the place once more last weekend. It seemed more like a large park than a ghost town: the old allure absent. I decided to visit it again, this time with my father — who could tell stories of it — and this time armed with the memoirs of someone who once lived there and which could make mansions rise from empty green spaces. As it happens, Anna Gayle Fry’s Memories of Old Cahaba is exceptional for that purpose: the author literally moves street by street telling the reader of what used to be on “the west side of Vine Street”, or “at the corner of Union and First North” streets. I can and will take this book to Cahaba and make it serve as a tour guide of sorts. Fry combine her own experiences living in the town with historical research to give the reader a larger perspective.
Stories about the town’s occupants drift in and out of the guide to the town, and descriptions of the town itself are heavily romanticized. This book reads like Gone with the Wind in its nostalgia for the days gone by. According to the author’s depiction, Cahaba was a place filled with stately homes and bustling businesses, where men with dapper mustaches waited for the steamboat to come by, while doffing their hats to delicately-dressed ladies, all served by a host of happy slaves. The book’s banal treatment of slavery was particularly bothersome. Southern feudalism is mourned for, not condemned, in this book: the few freedmen are beggars, and those who dare strike against their masters are regarded as ‘ignorant creatures’. The book ends with a long poem that partially laments slave uprisings and emancipation.
“For the third time within the memory of man, the town became a deserted village.The scenes of 1826 were repeated. The doors of the business houses were all closed and locked, the stately homes were abandoned and deserted. Flowers again bloomed untended in the lovely yards and grass covered the principal streets. An air of loneliness and desolation impossible to describe encompassed the place. Where wealth and fashion a few short years before held unlimited sway, ruin and desolation now danced in high carnival, and one could be exclaim: “Time! Time! How inscrutable are thy changes!”
The book has limited appeal: in its day, it ignited popular interest in the site among Alabamians, sowing the seeds for some historical preservation. The street-by-street recollection works for me given that I live so close to the site that I can immediately apply the information: I can readily relate to the description of the Crocheron mansion beside the two rivers, for instance, because I’ve been there: I’ve wandered through the woods being chased by a wasp to emerge in a clearing where three columns stand, bearing witness that once something great sat there. I suspect others will find the detailed descriptions a trifle dull. When I visit Cahaba again tomorrow, I shall find the book of value: in fact, I’ve integrated Fry’s descriptions and parts of the poem that give the town’s history into my photo-tour of the place on Facebook.
If you plan to visit Old Cahaba, then by all means stop by the Selma library and give this book a look-see: I doubt you’ll find it elsewhere, unless you buy a used copy off of Amazon.
Pictures are cropped from larger images taken during my trip last week: I’m going again tomorrow, or by this point “later today”.