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Modern technology could solve mystery of Alabama's 1st capital

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CAHAWBA, Alabama — The exact final resting place of Alabama's first capital is still in question, and modern technology is being used to solve the lingering mystery.

Historians know approximately where it vanished in a cloud of soft brick dust 181 years ago, but site director Linda Derry is waiting on a report to help provide specifics.

"We're within a few feet of the exact spot and appreciate the equipment that was brought here to help us pinpoint the location," said Derry, Cahawba's site director and "unofficial" mayor.

She referred to the latest in technological marvels that can send subsurface signals to detect metal, glass and other objects.

Technicians maneuvered the equipment up, down and around the area believed to have been the exact location earlier this month, and results could be available soon.

Colored markers have been placed throughout a large field where the first state Capitol was built, and Derry is anxious to study the findings.

Finding the specific location would be a feather in the cap of those who have adopted Cahawba as their own in recent decades as the state moves inexorably toward its bicentennial celebration in 2019.

Alabama's first capital city was carved out of the wilderness one year after statehood in 1819, but only served as the capital for six years before it was replaced by Tuscaloosa, and then Montgomery in 1846.

"Soft bricks were used to build the Capitol, and rain weakened them to the extent that the whole building collapsed in 1833," said Derry. "Our hope is that the new equipment will show us not only the exact spot, but also something about what's below the surface."

One of Derry's worries is the whole area may have been picked clean of anything significant by pioneering families living in log cabins around the Capitol — a 2,500-square-foot building rarely used after its completion.

Derry said the state sold lots at $5,000 a pop — quite an amount back then — but speculators quickly gobbled them up. She said more than $100,000 was raised, but $10,000 wasn't enough to make the two-story building sustainable.

The belief of some is the possibility that flooding from the merged Alabama and Cahaba rivers spelled doom for the Capitol and the site's importance to the state.

Derry disputes contentions by some writers and historians that legislators needed boats to get to the second floor of the Capitol because of occasional flooding.

What did occur when Tuscaloosa became the capital in 1826 was the resurgence of Cahawba as the economic heart of Dallas County, while Selma became the county seat.

"Those log cabins in Cahawba gave way to better housing, including mansions built by wealthy plantation owners in Dallas County," said Derry. "In 1860, the county had the fourth highest per capita income in America."

That exalted ranking was made possible because of slave labor that not only built the Capitol, but also picked cotton that shipped to markets around the world.

A year before Cahawba lost its capital city designation, it tossed a party to honor the Marquis de Lafayette during his triumphant tour of America.

Alabama's brief but elaborate salute to the legendary French hero of the American Revolution cost an estimated $17,000, a figure that almost exhausted the state treasury, topping construction cost of the Capitol by $7,000.

As it turned out, Lafayette outlived Alabama's first Capitol — he died a year after the building collapsed.

One of Derry's few disappointments as director of the historic site 12 miles southwest of Selma is the lack of any visual evidence of the building. None apparently exists.

"We don't even know what it really looked like," she said. "As far as we know, it's all speculation, but there have been drawings and sketches on its possible appearance."

That's why she's so excited about the recent subsurface testing at the area where the Capitol is believed to have been constructed.

What she does know is that Alabama's first Capitol must have been a building that offered extended conviviality during its brief run as the political heart of the state.

"Whiskey bottles, wine decanters and other evidence of partying have been found at the site," she said. "There was a rule against "parties of pleasure" being held at the Capitol, but what has been found indicates it wasn't always followed."

Cahawba reflected the area's rough and ready reputation after statehood, and Derry is of the opinion the Capitol might just have been used for parties after those who made the laws departed.


Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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