Updated: May 18, 2020
I’ve always found ghost towns really interesting. There’s something haunting about a town that was once thriving but is now abandoned and basically frozen in time. In a way, it reminds us of our own mortality — after all, we could also be alive and thriving one day, and gone the next.
Wow, that was really dark.
Anyway, today’s video will delve into an abandoned town that’s been called “Alabama’s most famous ghost town.” Let’s talk about Cahawba.
The ruins of Old Cahawba, also spelled Cahaba, lie about 8 miles southwest of Selma in central Alabama. The word “Cahawba” is thought to have Native American origins, but we’re not sure exactly what it means.
Cahawba was Alabama’s first capital after it officially became a state in 1819. (One source says 1817.) Despite its status as a capital, it was pretty underdeveloped for the first few years — and it wasn’t exactly the most ideal place to live, much less have as your capital. The city’s low elevation made it prone to flooding, and there was an unusually high mosquito population. In 1826, the capital was moved to Tuscaloosa, and tons of people left Cahawba in the following weeks. In 1846, the capital was moved again, this time to Montgomery, where it still is today.
Over the next few years, Cahawba would have its ups and downs. During the 1850’s, it was a major shipping point to Mobile, on the Alabama coast. A railroad was built in 1859, and by the time the Civil War began in 1861, Cahawba’s population had grown to almost 3,000 — not a major city by any means, but still thriving.
But during the war, things began to change. The government ripped up the newly built railroad and used the iron for another, unspecified railroad elsewhere. An old cotton warehouse was turned into a prison for Union soldiers. The prison originally held about 660 men, but that number soon grew to over 3,000. Several sources said conditions at the prison weren’t great. I could never find any details, but with so many people crowded in one space, it’s not too hard to believe. About 147 men are thought to have died there.
In 1865, the year the war ended, the town flooded once again. In 1866, Cahawba lost its title as the county seat of Dallas County, which was moved to Selma. After the war, the population took a sharp decline. A lot of former slaves did move there, but they eventually left too. By 1870, the population had gone from 3,000 to just 300.
By 1930, most of the town’s buildings had either been destroyed or had fallen apart on their own. The town was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and officially unincorporated in 1989.
So for a town with so much rich, dark history, there aren’t that many ghost stories. In fact, before we get into the hauntings, I want to share a couple of Cahawba related stories that are pretty morbid but don’t have any hauntings attached to them.
The first is the death of John A. Bell, who was killed in a shootout on Cahawba’s main street on May 23, 1856. There were multiple people involved in this shootout, but as far as I could find, Bell and his father were the only people killed. According to the website Rural Southwest Alabama, the “survivors” of the shootout went on trial for the murders but were acquitted. Needless to say, the Bell family was not happy about this. John A. Bell’s gravestone reads: “No murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.”
The second story is the Sultana disaster. Remember those 3,000 soldiers housed at the cotton warehouse-turned prison during the Civil War? After the war, tons of those now freed prisoners, along with some from Andersonville, Georgia, got on board the Sultana in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The 260 foot wooden steamboat was only built to hold about 376 people, but ended up with over 2,000 on board. Nevertheless, it continued north up the Mississippi, set to release the passengers in Cairo, Illinois. But in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, about eight miles outside Memphis, the boilers exploded, causing a huge fire. Of about 2,300 people on board, 1,800 of them died, making it the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history (according to battlefields.org).
So now that you know a little more about the town’s dark history, let’s talk about ghosts. Groundskeepers at the New Cahaba Cemetery have reported hearing voices as they worked. School groups claim to have recordings of “unusual sounds” and others say they’ve captured unexplained lights or shadows in photographs. (John A. Bell is buried there, so maybe some of these can be attributed to him?)
Another site that’s reportedly haunted is the Barker House. This mansion was built in 1860 by Stephen Barker and contained slave quarters behind the house. After people started leaving the town in the 1870’s, the house was bought by Samuel McGurdy Kirkpatrick. It burned in 1935 and was rebuilt, but today it’s in pretty bad condition. The only people usually let inside are paranormal investigators. Reports from said investigators include a ball rolling across the floor on its own and a stuffed animal appearing to communicate with something else in the room — though I’m not sure of the details surrounding this.
Another story centers on a man named Herbert, though the story presumably takes place when he was a child. Herbert spent a summer vacation with his grandfather, who lived in Cahawba. While there, Herbert spotted a man named Gatt who watched over him as he wandered about town. When he got home, Herbert told his brother about the man — and his brother told him Gatt had died before Herbert was even born.
But the most well-known haunting in Cahawba seems to be Pegue’s ghost. Colonel Christopher Claudius Pegues was the leader of the Fifth Alabama Regiment and was wounded leading a charge at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia in May 1862. He died from his wounds two months later, on July 15.
As the story goes, a couple was walking behind Pegues’ home in the spring of 1862.* As they walked, they spotted a ball of light, sometimes called a will-o’-the-wisp. They tried to touch it, but their hands went right through it. It disappeared, but later came back and followed the couple, though I’m not sure for how long. Because this story reportedly happened a few months before Pegues’ death, maybe even before he was wounded, it probably wasn’t his ghost — but it has been seen as a bad omen, maybe even a supernatural warning. (Other sources did say the incident with the will-o’-the-wisp actually happened 1863.) Interestingly, Pegues isn’t buried in Cahawba or even Alabama, but at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. So I think it’s safe to say his ghost probably isn’t hanging around Cahawba.
*this source also claims Pegues was mortally wounded at a different battle in June. Either way, the story of Pegues’ ghost probably takes place before his actual death.
Today, what’s left of the town is now Old Cahawba Archaeological Park. Archaeologists, historians and tourists alike visit it year round.
In 2008, the Cahaba Foundation was established. Their mission is “to secure private financial support from individuals, corporations and foundations for the state historic park at Old Cahawba.”
As of April 30, 2020, the park’s visitor’s center is closed and all events have been cancelled through May 30 as a result of the current pandemic. Alabama is currently undergoing a “phased re-opening strategy,” according to a post on their Facebook page, which you can check out if you're seeing this in the future and want up to date news on what’s open and what’s not.
So that’s all I have for you today on Old Cahawba. Frankly, I’m even more skeptical of these ghost stories than I usually am. You would think there would be more specific sightings of the ghosts who died in the city's prime, but there weren't many. But of course, I would love to know what you think. Do you think Old Cahawba is haunted, and have you ever been there or would you like go to someday? Let me know in the comments.