Tom Bailey, “The Five Capitals of Alabama: The Story of Alabama’s Capital Cities from St. Stephens to Montgomery” (NewSouth Books, Montgomery 2020) ISBN: 978-1-58838-427-0; Hardcover, pp. 216. $29.95
By Mike Thomason
As most of us know, Alabama has had five capitals, of which only the last survives. The capital moved often until going to Montgomery in 1846. The fight over location went on virtually nonstop from 1818 to 1846, reflecting the economic and social changes that swept across the territory and state in the early years.
St. Stephens was too far south, Huntsville too far north. Tuscaloosa seemed more centrally located until the Native Americans were driven off their ancestral lands to be exiled in Oklahoma in the mid-1830s. Their expulsion opened up vast lands on the eastern and southern side of the state. These were perfect for growing cotton, which was the state’s preferred crop.
Plantations were developed, slaves brought in from the coastal Atlantic states to create and work them and the Alabama River and its tributaries became the state’s new heartland. Their power and wealth were soon so great that a village on that river, Montgomery, was chosen to replace Tuscaloosa. Even after a new capitol was constructed on Goat Hill, a fire broke out and destroyed it. Yet the seat of state government remained there. A new capitol building was built. Much enlarged over the years to come, it still is in use today as a museum and the location of important state offices.
All of this antebellum activity has produced a wonderful record, which “The Five Capitals of Alabama” relates in words and gorgeous illustrations. NewSouth Books and the author, Tom Bailey, have produced a beautiful book that tells the story of each capital. His writing style is easy to follow and the photographs, drawings, maps and engravings are simply wonderful. It doesn’t hurt that the pages are 9-by-12 inches, oversized, heavy chrome-coated stock. It is quite stunning, but not at all dry and dull!
In addition to telling the architectural history, it is a very useful guide for visitors telling stories of the towns and the people who have lived in them. There are pictures of every governor with brief biographies of each as well. Some, such as George Wallace, get predictably more attention than others, but they all are there. The general political history of the state is provided, and the author treats racial difficulties gently.
This book will certainly appeal to older Alabamians and they will not be troubled by long descriptions of the horrors of slavery or the difficulties of Reconstruction. That is not this book’s focus. Bailey wants his readers to appreciate some of the state’s most beautiful buildings, the amazing work of architectural restoration and reconstruction in Huntsville’s Constitution Village, Old Town Montgomery and archeological work at St. Stephens, Tuscaloosa’s Capitol Park, or in Cahawba (Cahaba). As you read along, you find you will want to go see these places for yourself. The author tells you how to get there and how to find additional information about each place. He does not neglect to suggest where one can find accommodations, especially when visiting out-of-the-way places such as Cahaba.
The Alabama Tourism Department sponsored this and other books that came out to celebrate Alabama’s Bicentennial in 2019. This volume is certainly a worthy celebration of our state’s heritage. It was designed by Robin McDonald, who is an excellent photographer and took many of the pictures that appear in “The Five Capitals of Alabama.”
Mobile was never a serious contender to become Alabama’s state capital despite its key role in the state’s cotton economy; it is too far south to compete with Cahaba, Tuscaloosa or Montgomery. Huntsville had a similar handicap being on the state’s northern fringe. Cahaba, Tuscaloosa and Montgomery are all river cities, and though close together thanks to today’s highway network, they were quite far apart in the first half of the 19th century. It took two days for Montgomery to find out it had been chosen to replace Tuscaloosa as the capital. Mobile was 10 days from Montgomery by riverboat. In the state’s early years, Alabama was very large, and distances were much harder to overcome.
However, Mobile is not excluded from this volume. A large section tells the story of the murals that were installed beneath the capitol’s dome in 1930. The murals were done by Mobile’s Roderick MacKenzie. He worked on the project in his studio on Dauphin Street for over a year. Each mural is 13-by-11 inches and painted with pastel oils.
Marie Bankhead Owen, the director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, was his state contact, and as the author points out, a never-bashful personality. She told him the four countries which most influenced the state were Spain, France, England and the Confederacy. Therefore each should have its own mural. She also wanted a mural of pioneer days, the surrender of William Weatherford to Andrew Jackson in 1814 and another of the 1819 constitutional convention in Huntsville.
The Confederacy was to be represented by the swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president at the state capitol in 1861. MacKenzie added one more mural of Alabama in his own time. This is perhaps the best of the group. It shows dock workers in Mobile, loading freight in the port of Mobile with the mines and mills of the mineral district in the background. When the murals were installed in the capitol, their reception was very enthusiastic. MacKenzie did not charge enough, however. He died in poverty a decade later and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery. The murals are the Port City’s principal contribution to the state capital story.
It would take a week to visit all of the sites of our state’s capitals, but it would be an enjoyable vacation and an excellent introduction to this state’s rich history. Take “The Five Capitals of Alabama” with you and use it as your tour guide. Day trips to St. Stephens or Cahaba from our part of the state are certainly feasible, but an in-state trip to all five would be wonderful. It would be a trip your children would always remember. Even adults might be surprised at the breadth of the Alabama experience. We are more than football it seems!
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