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Signs will now lead tourists at first Ala. capital

Associated Press Updated: January 6, 2014 at 9:15 am 0

CAHAWBA, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's first capital may be a ghost town today, but supporters continue to work hard to make it a destination for visitors interested in state history.

The latest example is the recent arrival of interpretive panels that illustrate the town's background when it was the center of Alabama politics and commerce.

With a new year just arrived, worn-out, handmade creations are being removed and replaced by more attractive signs made possible by a grant from the Alabama Historical Commission.

When the new signs arrived in a large crate, Site Director Linda Derry couldn't wait to open it. She was aware of its contents and it wasn't long before she was inspecting the panels.

"We didn't have to wait for Dec. 25 to take a look at our special present," said Derry, who has played an important role in keeping Cahawba before the public. "The signs will be installed throughout the park a few at a time."

Derry said each sign draws attention to a historic location as well as "subtle clues" left behind in the landscape by those who once lived at Cahawba.

Although the old signs are being discarded, Derry was nevertheless thankful they were posted "because we worked to make them on a shoestring budget."

"For the first time, we'll be able to display actual photographs on location so visitors can see missing structures and town residents," she said.

Derry said an added feature of the new signs is a "QR" code that can be read by smart phones, offering "options for hearing more stories, seeing photos and learning more of the park's secrets."

"We are currently compiling stories and photos to be part of the upcoming cellphone tours," she said.

Cahawba was carved out of the wilderness in 1819 and built atop the remains of an earlier ghost town occupied in the 16th century.

Although it lost its capital city designation in 1826 when the state seat of government was moved to Tuscaloosa before the eventual shift to Montgomery, Cahawba remains the "capital" of Dallas County.

It would grow into a wealthy antebellum river town, one that depended on cotton and slavery prior to the Civil War.

Cahawba also found itself thrust into the role of prison guard for thousands of Union troops captured during the war.

In the aftermath of the war, Cahawba lost its glitter and importance was focused on Selma, another river town about 15 miles to the east.

Cahawba may no longer be the center of political power in Alabama as it once was for six years at the dawn of statehood, it has become an archaeological delight for scholars.

Weekend "diggers" arrive from around the state to see what they might be able to find underground. At times, they are pleasantly surprised by traces of life during the second decade in the new state of Alabama.

Assistant Site Director Jonathan Matthews is kept busy throughout the year, spending much of his time at the site and happy to answer questions from up to 30,000 visitors annually.

Ask him a question about the state's first capital city and he'll have a response in seconds, especially when it involves the Statehouse.

"Land was set aside for a Capitol building, but there wasn't enough money to build one," said Matthews, adding the land was never used because, by 1826, Alabama's capital was moved to Tuscaloosa.

Instead of a large Capitol building, a temporary facility was built to house the state's fledgling Legislature where state business was conducted.

Through the years, concept drawings and paintings have appeared to give visitors a glance at what the Statehouse must have looked like.

Frank White, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission, said "big plans" are scheduled for Cahawba in the coming years.

"There are many layers of history there," White said. "It was a remarkable place and much work already has been done to bring attention to it."

White said one of the biggest projects will be a 50,000-square-foot interpretive center at Cahawba.

"We're working on a $4 million capital campaign to build the center and have received $2.5 million toward that goal," he said, crediting foundations with helping to raise enough funds to build the center.

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