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Keeping History Alive (even when the towns are gone)
Posted on February 17, 2011 by Eric Beck | Categories: exhibits | |  Tagged:  , , |

In looking at an old election today in Alabama (this election for State Representative in Dallas County in 1820), I was trying to decide whether or not the listed polling places were towns or just polling places.  Selma was easy.  If you’ve never heard of Selma, Alabama then you desperately need to brush up on your 20th Century American History.  But then I got to Cahawba.  In looking for some more information, I went to everybody’s favorite dubious source: Wikipedia.  It’s terrible for objective information, but for basic knowledge on towns in the United States, it’s got more than enough information; it had this lovely start that fascinated me: “Cahaba, also spelled Cahawba, was the first permanent state capital of Alabama from 1820 to 1825. It is now a ghost town and state historic site.”

Wow, I thought.  A ghost town.  Completely empty of modern day inhabitants.  Yet, it once was a thriving town.  It was even the capital for several years right after Alabama became a state.  But then, during Reconstruction, the county seat moved to Selma and the businesses and people followed and by the the turn of the century there was very little left.  You can visit it today – it’s only a few miles down the river from Selma.  But look at it on satellite pictures and all you see are dirt roads and trees.  Just the outline of a town.

It’s not the only election where we have results from an Alabama ghost town.  Look here, and you will find results from Clairborne, in Monroe County.  In 1820, it was by far the biggest town in the county and it eventually grew to a peak of 5000 people but which now contains just one building and three 19th century cemeteries.

Then there is Blakely.  It had a fort during the Civil War (it is right where the Tensaw River flows into Mobile Bay) and today is a state park.  But that park used to be a town – possibly the biggest town in Baldwin County in 1824, judging from the Presidential Election Returns.

Just like those towns in Massachusetts that are now under the Quabbin, these were once towns that thrived and there are no people left there to remember.  But we have the election records – we know that those people did live, that they lived and they voted.