Old St. Stephens, AL


 


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The bluff at St. Stephens overlooking the Tombigbee River.

St. Stephens bluff on the Tombigbee River.  There's a geocache just off the bottom left of the picture.

Located atop a limestone bluff overlooking the winding Tombigbee River about 60 miles north of Mobile, Old St. Stephens is  "Where Alabama Began." We went there for the geocaches and found a thriving archaeological site and historical park.  Unlike many ghost towns, there's not much mystery about the origins of St. Stephens or what happened to it.  On the contrary, it has been studied, dug up and well-documented for years. There are few structures left, but there are foundations, cellars, the original town well and active archaeological digs.  The streets, complete with street signs, are laid out through the woods with posts and there are historical plaques located at key spots. You can also take a short walk to the remains of old Spanish Fort San Esteban.

Modern-day Alabama had a long history of exploration, settlement and conflict.  The French, the Spanish, the British and the Americans all claimed possession at various times. The Spanish laid claim and occupied it until they released their claim peacefully in 1795 as a result of the Treaty of San Lorenzo. The new land which was formally annexed by the United States became the Mississippi Territory, of which Alabama was a part.  The territory was expanded several times.  By 1813 it included all of present day Mississippi and Alabama.  This area was also the ancestral home of the Choctaw nation, the original native American inhabitants. 

An archaeologist's reconstruction of High Street.     The ruins of an old cellar on High Street in St. Stephens.
High Street, the main street in Old St. Stephens, looking south to north.  The bluff in the above picture is at the far end of the road and off to the right.  The white posts mark buildings and addresses and an information plaque can be seen on the right. There is a geocache very close by.     This stone lined cellar is all that remains of Caskadin's General Store at the north end of High Street.  Cellars are unusual along waterways because of the water table but the solid ground of the bluff made them possible. This would have been several feet deeper than it is now There was probably an old-fashioned "root cellar" which would have stayed cool in the summer and enabled better storage of perishable goods.

The US Army took possession of Fort San Esteban in May of 1799.  A trading post was established on the current site in 1805 and the town's original charter dates back to 1807.  The location of St. Stephens on the bluffs of the Tombigbee was no accident. The river was navigable by ocean-going schooners and clipper ships to this spot, making it an inland seaport.  The deep draft ships could go no further because of shallow rocks and shoals.  Supplies were offloaded here and either moved overland or transferred to shallow draft vessels for transport up river. Settlement and trade rapidly developed as St. Stephen's transitioned from a frontier town to a center of commerce and government.

The Indian baths at Old St. Stephens Park.
An interesting site called the Indian Baths just north of the main parking lot of the Historical Park. There are two clearly man-made rectangular shaped "tubs." The bigger one has a mineral spring flowing into it. Their origin is uncertain. Some say the Choctaw carved them out. Some say it was the Spanish. Nobody knows if anyone really took baths here. The water is icy cold. There may have been some ceremonial or therapeutic use with the mineral spring. There is a geocache at the very top right hand corner of the picture.

The Mississippi Territorial Legislature established a district court in St. Stephen's, making it the first court in Alabama.  The first school and the first bank were also here. By 1815, the town was prospering to the point where it was surveyed and lots were sold.  In 1817, Mississippi became a state and Alabama now became its own territory with St. Stephens as the capitol.  For the next two years, there was no stopping St. Stephens.  At its peak, there were over 3,000 residents and 500 structures.  There were hotels, stores, newspapers, doctors, lawyers, a bank, a post office, a theater and many taverns - but no churches.

Then, as quickly as it had boomed, it busted.  Alabama became a state in 1819 and the capitol was moved to Cahaba.  About the same time, enterprising individuals started using shallow draft paddle wheelers to bring goods up river. With those, they could negotiate the shoals and bypass St. Stephens. With commerce and government gone, the town quickly withered.  Yellow fever epidemics in the 1820's finished it.  By 1830, St. Stephens was a sleepy little village and by the Civil War, it was empty.  The bricks and timber of the 500 structures were torn up to support the Confederate war effort.

People who stayed in the area established a new St. Stephens further inland which was served by a road junction and the railroad.  The town remains today.  The old courthouse is the headquarters and museum of the St. Stephens Historical Commission and is a good jumping off point for your exploration of the old town, which is about five miles up the road.  There's a geocache in the remains of the old jail next to the courthouse.

 

The old town site is now the St. Stephens Historical Park.  There are four geocaches within walking distance of the parking lot.  Number five is back at  new St. Stephens at the old jail.

This is a classic Off the Beaten Path destination.  This is one of the most important historical and archaeological sites in the southeastern US and we just blundered into it while looking for a geocache.  We ended up staying several hours. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any ghosts at Old St. Stephens.  Maybe you'll be the first to spot one.

The GPS coordinates of the parking lot at Old St. Stephens are 31.555770, -88.037554.  Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google map.

Good haunting....The Cachemanian Devils