Ghost towns are relics of our past. Once towns booming with activity and commerce, now a piece of history fading from memory. These towns have long been deserted, some being reclaimed by nature, others brought back to life by nearby towns and cities as historic sites.
Despite what some may think, ghost towns are not necessarily haunted. Now don’t get me wrong — some can be spooky and creepy, and yes, paranormal activity has been reported in a few. But for the most part, ghost towns are simply a fascinating look back at a period of time long ago.
Let’s meander down the once vibrant but long-since silenced streets of five historic Alabama ghost towns and bring their history back to life.
Mobile, Alabama, was founded in 1702 along the banks of the Mobile River and Mobile Bay. Throughout the early 1800s, the city was a successful seaport, but it had one problem: The ship channel from the Gulf of Mexico to the settlement was shallow.
Enter Josiah Blakeley, who saw his chance to make a fortune. He found that the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, in what would later become Spanish Fort, had a much deeper channel. In 1814, the town of Blakeley was chartered.
The town quickly grew in stature and prominence and actually challenged its cross-bay rival, Mobile, as a ship building and exporting town.
But just as quickly, the town fell victim to its own design. It was built along a swampy area of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the second largest such delta in the country. As a result, mosquitoes brought a silent end to the town: yellow fever. The epidemic rampaged through the town. Hundreds of citizens died while hundreds more fled for their lives, and by 1830, the town was left abandoned to be reclaimed by nature.
Thirty-five years later, the site of the old town saw the last major battle of the Civil War take place, but after that, the area was lost again until 1974, when the area was established as Historic Blakeley State Park.
Today, visitors to the park can experience the battlefield, walk the long, deserted main street of the town, view the remains of the old town courthouse, and stroll the E.O. Wilson Boardwalk for incredible views of the birds and wildlife on the delta.
Be sure to visit the park’s website for details about historical events at Blakeley as well as historic and nature cruises on the Delta Explorer.
Pro Tip: Visit Blakeley the first weekend of April for the reenactment of the Battle of Blakeley, and check their website for special tours of the old town throughout the year.
2. Old St. Stephens
St. Stephens Historical Park is known as the place “where Alabama began.” The town was first settled by Spanish explorers in 1789 along the banks of the Tombigbee River.
The first settlements were located atop a high limestone bluff at a sharp bend in the river. It was the perfect location. After the bend, the river turned into shallows, so ships sailing north from the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile would have to stop and unload their passengers and cargo to continue their journey over land.
After a land treaty with the U.S. in 1799, the town exploded, growing from a population of 190 to over 7,000. By 1817 it was named the capital of the Alabama Territory, but that title was short lived, as the capital was moved to Cahawba in 1820 when Alabama became a state. Old St. Stephens was moved to the present-day location of St. Stephens, and the old town disappeared.
Today, archaeologists have identified many of the original city’s streets and intersections — to the point where they have identified individual house numbers and have uncovered the history of some of the families that lived there.
Walk down the town’s dusty streets, past old wells, artifacts, and the dig site and beginning of the reconstruction of the Globe Hotel, once the main stopping point and lodging option for travelers to the town. You will definitely get the feeling of what life was like in Old St. Stephens during its heyday.
Old St. Stephens is more than just history. The park has come alive with plenty of activities, including disc golf, swimming and kayaking in the lake, fishing, and tent and RV camping.
Pro Tip: Be sure to visit the St. Stephens Museum in the new town with exhibits from the pre-historic period through today.
3. Old Cahawba
After Old St. Stephens lost its title as the capital of the Alabama Territory, the newly found state capital was located in Old Cahawba.
The capital was located at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers in what is now the town of Orrville (just south of Selma). Once again, the founders of the town selected the perfect location. Both of those rivers were strong steamboat routes that were essential to the region’s cotton economy, shipping King Cotton to Mobile and the Gulf.
While these rivers were the interstates of their time, they made the town prone to severe flooding and mosquitoes. Yet another yellow fever epidemic forced the state to move the capital to Tuscaloosa, and eventually Montgomery only 6 years later.
The town held on for a few more years, but any further growth was stymied during the Civil War when the Union Navy blockaded Mobile Bay, causing all shipping to stop. A cotton warehouse here was converted into a POW camp to house captured Union soldiers. It was designed to hold 660 men, but by 1865 3,000 were imprisoned there in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions.
A trip to Old Cahawba Archaeological Park is a fascinating trip back in time. You can either walk or drive the deserted clay streets. Each street of the town has been identified and named the way it was back in the mid-1800s.
Be sure to pick up a brochure at the visitor center before heading out, and spend some time chatting with the friendly and informative staff that will help you on your journey.
Your visit will take you to an old one-room schoolhouse, two cemeteries, the New Cemetery (where the wealthy white people were buried with ornate tombstones), and the Negro Burial Ground, which was established in 1819. The last burial held there was in 1959.
Your visit will also take you to the place where the POW camp once stood and past the old Crocheron Columns — tall brick columns that are the only remnants of a mansion where Confederate General Forrest and Union General Wilson met for a few hours to discuss exchanging prisoners. The columns should have long since disappeared by scavengers looking for vintage bricks, but their unique design made them useless to collectors.
4. Fort Mims
Fort Mims was an early site along the Tensaw River, north of Mobile, that saw the Creek Indian Wars of the early 1800s begin. These wars eventually led to the tragic removal of Native Americans from their land during the Trail of Tears.
The fort consisted of a short wooden palisade (wall) with a gunnery stockade. Following a battle between a faction of U.S.-aligned Creeks and the Red Sticks, who wanted the Creeks to abandon ties with the Americans, the Red Sticks attacked the fort.
It was a brutal attack, and the men, women, and children who had gathered in the small wooden fortress for protection were massacred. The ensuing battle lasted 5 hours, and when it was over, over 500 had died between both sides. It set off more battles between the tribes and the U.S. military.
Today, the fort is just a shell of its former self, but it’s worth a visit to learn about this tragic but historic site. Volunteers and archaeologists have constructed an exact replica of the stockade and a partial wall. Interpretive signs lead you around the grounds and tell you the tale of that fateful day in 1813.
Pro Tip: The best time to visit the fort is the last weekend of August, when members of the Fort Mims Restoration Association hold the Battle of Fort Mims weekend. Volunteers reenact what life was like at the fort over 200 years ago.
Okay, this one really isn’t a real ghost town, but it sure looks like one.
The “town” of Spectre is located on a small island in the Alabama River just north of Montgomery. It was never an actual town but was the site for the filming of the 2003 Tim Burton movie, Big Fish.
The town in the movie was called Spectre, and all of the sets — buildings and all — were left abandoned in place and now make for an interesting day roaming the “streets.” The buildings really do look like those of a ghost town today. They are all beginning to decay and are being reclaimed by nature, but that makes a visit more special.
Not only can you roam the streets of Spectre, but you can get marvelous views of Gum Chute and Jackson Lake. There is also a kayak launch here, and a few campsites. A day-use fee is charged.