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Author Topic: Claiborne  (Read 1453 times)

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Offline Guidedawg

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« on: September 16, 2015, 10:28:28 AM »
One of the things that inspired me to get out and ride was the Ghost Town project.  Unfortunately, I believe I only had saved the text of one of the interesting trips that I made.  I have recreated this trip from April 2015 and have hopefully found the appropriate photos that accompanied it.

Growing up in Southwest Alabama, I was familiar with Claiborne as the name of a lock and dam on the Alabama River.  I’ve traveled Highway 84 between Grove Hill and I-65 enough times to have seen historical markers representing the town and fort, but until I decided to visit it as a Bama Rides Ghost Town project, I had no idea of the scope of the former community.

I obtained the following information through online research before traveling to the site:

Situated near the Federal Road, Claiborne began during the Mississippi Territory period with a ferry that transported settlers across the Alabama River. During the Creek War 1813-1814, a large stockade fort, named Fort Claiborne, was established at the site by General Ferdinand L. Claiborne. He used the fort as a base for the invasion of the Creek nation with the Regular Army of the United States, the Lower Tombigbee Militia, and friendly Choctaw. The community of Claiborne began in 1816, on the former fort site.

Following the Creek War, Claiborne became one of the largest and fastest growing communities in what would become Alabama. Early settlers included three future Alabama governors: John Gayle, John Murphy, and Arthur P. Bagby. William B. Travis, a hero of the Alamo, lived and practiced law in Claiborne before leaving for Texas in 1831.  Other prominent politicians included James Dellet and Charles Tait. The community was surveyed in 1819 by General John Coffee, with lots being numbered and sold. It was incorporated as a town on December 20, 1820 by the Alabama Legislature.

The first paddle steamer, the Harriet, to reach this far up the Alabama River landed at Claiborne in 1821. At that time the population had reached 2000 people. It had grown to 2500 by the time that the Marquis de Lafayette visited in April 1825. He was entertained in the newly built Masonic Hall, a building which, along with the William B. Travis house, still exists but was later moved to the nearby community of Perdue Hill. The town continued to expand during the 1830s, with the population peaking at near 5000 people. Claiborne served as the first county seat of Monroe County until 1832, when it was moved to the centrally located Monroeville. By then the town boasted two large hotels, numerous stores and business establishments, a cotton warehouse, a boarding house, a jail, a school and several churches.

At this point outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera stemmed further growth of the town.

Claiborne remained an important shipping port and trading center throughout the 1840s and 1850s. The coming of the American Civil War saw the construction of batteries along the lower Alabama River and at Claiborne. The town was heavily looted at the end of the war.  Following the war, the town quickly lost importance. By 1872, the population had dwindled to approximately 350 people.  When the new railroad through Monroe County bypassed Claiborne in the early 20th century, the fate of the settlement was sealed. Today, all that remains of old Claiborne is the James Dellet House and three 19th century cemeteries.

The Claiborne Historical Marker that is shown marks the site of old Claiborne.  This marker is located beside Highway 84 near the river bridge on the east side of the Alabama River (GPS coordinates N31.544528,W87.513056).

Source:  Wikipedia

The website provides a few other details to add to the picture:

Claiborne was first settled in 1816 and quickly became a commercial and political hub of thenewly formed Monroe County (at this time, Monroe County was one-third the size of the present state of Alabama). Its importance as a waterway shipping center and as the chief cotton port on the Alabama River made it a candidate site for the relocation of a state capital there in 1826. Claiborne was the early residence of two of Alabama’s early governors. During its heyday, thirteen different newspapers, numerous stores, taverns, and an educational academy operated in the town. In the 1830s, Claiborne boasted a population of over 5,000.
Most importantly, I came across a NY Times article on Alabama ghost towns which contained quotes from Agee Broughton, a man whose family lived in the area for several generations and who currently resides in the only remaining structure on the site of Claiborne, the Dellet house.

James Dellet was both a state and US Congressman who built his plantation home between 1835 and 1845 and is now on the National Register of Historic places.  I did not approach the private residence to take a photo, so this is from the Internet.

When I contacted the Monroe County Historical Society about the specific location of Claiborne, they referred me to Mr. Broughton. 

He can often be found managing his Chevron station near the original site of Clairborne in the community of Perdue Hill
The station also houses the Post Office, and you can apparently also purchase live bait.

The store displays quite a collection of old photos from Claiborne’s glory days

With preliminary research done, it was time to explore.

There are markers for the town just east of the Alabama river. 

A nearby cemetery was mentioned in some of the info that I read, but the graves appeared too modern.

I noticed one headstone at the edge of an overgrown section and assume there are older plots lost in the weeds.

The cemetery is located on Old Fort Claiborne Road, but Mr. Broughton assured me the fort was actually on the opposite side of Highway 84 and the road was one of several mislabelings when addresses were being updated for the 911 system.

There is a historical marker for the fort on the correct side of the highway.

Although the Dellet house is the only structure remaining on the original site, two other important buildings were relocated 1.5 miles east to Perdue Hill where they are now managed by a historical foundation.

One home there belonged to William Travis during his time in the area. 

It’s a simple 2 room house though the times of its most well known owner and his time in Alabama is more complicated.
This was taken from the book Alabama Curiosities:

William Barrett Travis, the colorful rogue who became a Texas hero by dying in command of the Alamo in 1836, had been a pillar of the community of Claiborne, Alabama.  He was an attorney, a newspaper publisher, a member of the Masonic lodge, and an officer in the Alabama militia.  He also had a wife, a child, and a baby on the way.

   Yet he abandoned career and family and skipped town, settling in Anahuac, Texas, in 1831.  He told everyone he was single and started a bilingual diary detailing his sexual exploits with dozens of women.  His wife, Rosanna Travis, finally showed up in Texas, children in tow, demanding a divorce on charges of desertion, which she got in 1834.  By then her ex-husband was caught up in the armed struggle for Texas independence, a struggle that killed him at age twenty-six and, in a sense, made him immortal.

   Why Travis left Alabama has been gossiped about for nearly 200 years.  Some people say he learned, or suspected, that his wife’s unborn child was not his.  Some say he killed a man whom he caught with his wife.  Some say he got fed up with Alabama politics—always a possibility, today as then.  Some say that he came home from a business trip to find that some scalawag had cut off his horse’s tail, and that was the last straw.  Some say he owed more money in Alabama than he felt like replaying.  But the chief reason may have been simply that that Mexican government, to encourage immigration, was offering any American man 4,000 acres of land and Texas citizenship for a mere $30.  Travis wasn’t the only wayward husband who found that offer too good to pass up.

The other primary building standing on Perdue Hill is Alabama Masonic Lodge #3.

Mr. Broughton was kind enough to open the building and give me a tour.  The lower floor was used for various public events back in the day (I saw the canvas used as a curtain for theatre productions) and also by a women’s club who took over the building when it was essentially abandoned by the Masons after they moved to a lodge in Monroeville.

The upper floor housed the lodge meeting room and contains elements of that as well as other community historical items.

So with all of the prosperity and seeming importance of the community of Claiborne, what could have happened?  I believe the previously mentioned NY Times articles sums it well:

Like other towns around the rivers of Alabama, Claiborne, which had a population of roughly 5,000 at its peak in the 1820s and 1830s, was struck by yellow fever and cholera.
The Civil War also struck a heavy blow to Claiborne. Alabama was one of the last areas occupied by Union soldiers, and after the war ended, in April 1865, thousands looted the town for days, leaving little behind, Mr. Broughton said.

By the 1870s, Claiborne was still a shipping point on the river, but the school was gone, the churches were gone, the merchants were moving out and the population was dwindling. Then in the early 1900s a railroad came through Monroe County, bypassing Claiborne and spelling doom for the town’s shipping mainstay, the moving of cotton by steamboat along the river.

When I asked Mr. Broughton about any signs of the previous community, he directed me to this road which was once the main thoroughfare through the town of Claiborne

It now remains as a path to the past, a remaining trace of what was once a thriving community and now another ghost town of Alabama.

Offline Bluesman

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Re: Claiborne
« Reply #1 on: September 16, 2015, 08:30:46 PM »
Great report!!!!This is one of my favorite sections too.