Alabama's Historic State Capitals Tour
by Lee Sentell
Table of Contents
- Where To Begin
- Inside the Capitol
- First Floor
- Second Floor
- The Historic Capitol Steps
- Visit Nearby State Buildings and Other Historic Sites
- More to Explore Inside the Archives
- Visit the Nearby Governor’s Mansion
- Early Alabama Capitals
- Huntsville: The Path to Statehood and Space Exploration
- Cahawba: Site of Alabama’s First Permanent Capital
- Visit Capitol Park in Tuscaloosa
- Where To Stay and Where To Eat
Because of its connections to both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, the Alabama State Capitol building in Montgomery is one of only a few Capitol buildings listed as a National Historic Landmark. Montgomery is also the only place in the U.S. where a foreign government was created: the Confederate States of America in 1861.
Neither the Capitol building nor the city it resides in, however, is the first to serve as the seat of government for Alabama. Before Montgomery became the capital in 1846, four other places held the honor: St. Stephens, Huntsville, Cahawba and Tuscaloosa.
Where To Begin
Since Montgomery (334-261-1100) is the site of the current State Capitol (600 Dexter Ave.; 334-242-3935) and one of the most historic cities in the country, it is only fitting that Alabama’s Historic State Capitals Tour begins here. After all, the white, Greek Revival domed building overlooking Dexter Avenue is where the Alabama Legislature met for more than a century from 1851 until 1985. It is also where Jefferson Davis was installed as president of the Confederacy in 1861 and where important chapters in the Civil Rights Movement, led by a young preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were written in the 1960s.
In the days before the Capitol was built in Montgomery, goats grazed atop the hill where it is located, giving rise to the nickname “Goat Hill,” which political reporters use to this day. The Goat Hill Gift Shop at the rear of the building sells Alabama books and souvenirs that are perfect for gift-giving.
The current Capitol is Alabama’s fourth purpose-built Capitol building, with the first at Cahawba (also spelled Cahaba), the second at Tuscaloosa and the last two in Montgomery. The first building in Montgomery, located where the current Capitol stands, burned after only two years. The latter one was completed in 1851, with additional wings added over the course of the following 140 years.
In 1985, when the Alabama Legislature moved to the Statehouse across the street, a renovation of the state Capitol was begun. It reopened in 1994 to welcome visitors from around the world. Upon reopening, the governor and numerous state offices moved back into the Capitol, but the Legislature remained at the Statehouse.
Before you enter the massive double doors, look for the six-pointed star that marks where Davis took the presidential oath of office. It was placed at the front portico in 1897.
Inside the Capitol
Two cantilevered staircases that connect three floors dominate the foyer. The stairs were designed by architect Horace King, a former slave who was freed in 1846. Portraits of former governors, beginning with William Wyatt Bibb, line the halls. The office of the governor is to the left in the north wing. Offices for the secretary of state and state treasurer are in the south wing.
The original governor’s suite (1851-1912) is on the first floor. Fragments of trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) painting that dates from the 1870s surround an old door opening on the right. Across the hall, the outer office of the 1851 secretary of state’s suite is a museum space with antiques of the 1880s, as is the larger, inner office. Down the hall is the current governor’s suite, which isn’t open for tours. The room has changed little since Gov. Emmet O’Neal of Florence moved into the office in 1912. Portraits of recent governors are in the rotunda. Look up toward the dome to see eight murals painted in 1927 that depict periods of Alabama history.
Walk up the winding stairs to the original House and Senate chambers to see where Southern delegates gathered and debated secession and states’ rights following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. On Feb. 4, 1861, delegates wrote a constitution and formed the Confederate States of America, electing former U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of Mississippi president on Feb. 9. Within two months, Davis’s government telegraphed a message to Confederate soldiers in South Carolina to fire on Fort Sumter, effectively starting the War Between the States.
Twenty-five years after the Civil War started, Davis laid the cornerstone for the Confederate Monument “consecrated to the memory of the Confederate Soldiers and Seamen.” Constructed between 1886 and 1898, it stands near the north wing of the Capitol outside of the governor’s office. A 9-foot bronze statue of the only president of the Confederacy was unveiled in 1940 in front of the Capitol.
The Historic Capitol Steps
The steps of the Capitol are symbolic of two important chapters in state history: the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. A century after Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederacy, congregations in African-American churches, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were conducting peaceful protests to outlaw segregation in public facilities, restaurants, stores, transportation and schools.
It was at the foot of the Capitol, at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march (March 16-25, 1965), that King delivered his “How Long, Not Long” speech. Before a crowd of more than 25,000, he laid the demands of African-American Alabamians at the doorstep of Gov. George C. Wallace, proclaiming, “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.” Although at least two people were killed in response to King’s remarks, on Aug. 6 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Tours of the Capitol are offered Monday through Saturday. Groups must schedule their visits in advance and enter the building through the rear entrance at all times. Individuals must also enter and exit from the rear if visiting on Saturdays.
Visit Nearby State Buildings and Other Historic Sites
While in Montgomery, a visit to notable state buildings and other historic sites near the Capitol is a must. Adjacent to the Capitol is the First White House of the Confederacy (644 Washington Ave.; 334-242-1861), which was the executive residence of President Jefferson Davis and his family from February to May 1861.
The only church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, is located a block from the Capitol. It offers regular tours and features a mural in the basement showing King’s legendary journey from Montgomery as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement to his death in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
More to Explore Inside the Archives
Take a few minutes to walk through the cultural exhibits on the second floor of the Archives. An exhibit on 19th-century life includes clothing, dolls, silver, glass, weapons and even the Bible with which Jefferson Davis was sworn into office. The military room displays uniforms and weapons used in various wars including the Revolutionary War, Creek War and the War Between the States.
Children especially will enjoy an interactive, hands-on “attic” that permits them to role-play with clothing and other articles. If you want to trace your family tree, be sure and visit the first-floor reference library that contains official documents of state government.
Visit the Nearby Governor’s Mansion
About a mile from the Capitol is the Alabama Governor’s Mansion (1142 S. Perry St.; 334-241-8824). The 17-room Greek Revival house has been the official residence since 1951. Tours are by appointment on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The official gift shop is across the street from the side entrance of the mansion at 30 Finley Ave. (334-241-8824).
Early Alabama Capitals
After visiting Montgomery, head south toward the port city of Mobile. Located 67 miles north of Mobile and bordering the west bank of Washington County’s Tombigbee River is St. Stephens (251-246-6790). It was the designated temporary seat of government of the Alabama Territory from 1817-1819. Beginning in the 1790s to its decline in the 1820s, it was the site of a Spanish fort, an American fort and a trading post.
Today, the 200-acre Old St. Stephens Historical Park represents one of Alabama’s most important archaeological sites. It not only documents the history of the once-vibrant capital town but gives insight into the people who inhabited the area for centuries.
Old St. Stephens is also a wonderful recreational destination featuring an abundance of outdoor activities, from fishing and camping to hiking, biking and bird-watching. Nature lovers can take a refreshing walk through the forest, enjoying the view of dogwoods and butterflies and the sounds of migratory birds and other animals as they go along. The park is open daily, year-round.
While in St. Stephens, a must-stop is the 1854 St. Stephens Courthouse, which is now open to the public as a visitor center and museum. The museum displays portraits of early residents and exhibits a large dugout canoe made by prehistoric Native Americans, a collection of ancient fossils from local limestone deposits and artifacts from the historic town. A gift shop offers books and other items for sale. Individuals can tour the beautifully restored courthouse; large groups should call ahead for a guided tour of both the museum and the historical park.
Huntsville: The Path to Statehood and Space Exploration
At the north end of the state is Huntsville (256-551-2230), site of Alabama’s statehood and home of space exploration in America. Huntsville was the largest town in the Alabama Territory in 1819. It was here that 44 delegates gathered and wrote the first constitution granting Alabama statehood on Dec. 14, 1819.
The reconstructed Alabama Constitution Village (109 Gates Ave. SE; 256-564-8100), featuring costumed tour guides, is a part of the EarlyWorks Family of Museums that also include the Historic Huntsville Depot and the EarlyWorks Children’s History Museum. Collectively, the downtown museums represent the state’s largest hands-on history museum complex. You can climb aboard a 46-foot river keelboat, explore an 1860s-era depot or visit the cabinet shop where delegates stood to sign the Alabama Constitution.
No trip to Huntsville would be complete without a visit to the U.S. Space & Rocket and Center. Called “a national treasure resource” by the Smithsonian Institution, the center contains more than 1,500 artifacts documenting America’s achievements in space exploration, from putting man on the moon to development of the space shuttle program. Children and adults alike are sure to get “lost in space” as the center is home to Space Camp and Aviation Challenge and features the Spacedome Theater, Rocket Park, an Education Training Center and more. The Mars Grill provides a great place to relax and grab a bite to eat without leaving the site.
Cahawba: Site of Alabama’s First Permanent Capital
Located near Selma, Cahawba (9518 Cahaba Rd., Orrville; 334-872-8058) was the state capital from 1820-1826. It was once a thriving antebellum river town but became a ghost town shortly after the Civil War, when the site had to be abandoned because of flooding and other problems.
Today, Cahawba is an important archaeological site and a place of picturesque ruins. While standing on Arch Street in Old Cahawba Archaeological Park, perhaps you can make out the fact that the concourse was originally a ditch surrounded by a palisade with a Native American mound in the center – at the site where Gov. Bibb wanted to put the Capitol building. At the bluff overlooking the Alabama River, see if you can identify the foundations of Cahaba Federal Prison. It’s in the same location that Bibb wanted to construct a permanent Statehouse. Crocheron Columns is all that’s left of the mansion where Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Union Gen. James Wilson discussed an exchange of prisoners captured during the Battle of Selma.
While at Cahawba, be sure to stop by the welcome center and museum at the southwest corner of Capitol and Ash. Inside, you can get brochures and other information and view artifacts, photographs and treasures that reveal what life at Cahawba was like during its heyday and discover how to interpret the landscape of the site today. The park is open daily. Special ghost tours are held each October.
Old Cahawba lies at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba rivers. From downtown Selma, take Highway 22 west 8.6 miles. Turn onto County Road 9 and follow this quiet country road another five miles to Cahawba.
Visit Capitol Park in Tuscaloosa
A growing Tuscaloosa (205-391-9200), situated on the banks of the Black Warrior River, was chosen as the capital in 1825 as a replacement for Cahawba. It served as the seat of state government from 1826 until 1846. When the capital was moved to Montgomery, the former Capitol building became the home of the Alabama Central Female College, which burned in 1923.
The only visible reminder of the old Capitol building is the stone foundation and two small columns located in Capitol Park (205-391-9200) at the intersection of University Boulevard and 28th Avenue. Today, the historic city is noted as the home of the University of Alabama and its trophy-winning Crimson Tide football team.
Where To Stay and Where To Eat
Visitors looking for lodging and dining options should contact the respective cities for detailed information or request an Alabama Vacation Guide by calling 334-242-4169.
The Museum of Alabama
Alabama turned 200 in 2019. However, the Alabama Department of Archives and History (624 Washington Ave.; 334-242-4435), next door to the First White House of the Confederacy, displays tools, pottery and dioramas that document more than 14,000 years of human habitation in Alabama. Located inside the Archives, the Museum of Alabama showcases the state’s evolution through roughly a half-million items, including Native American, pioneer and military artifacts. Archaeological fragments, uniforms, household goods and weapons from wars fought by Alabamians fill the stately museum.
Related Road Trips
Selma to Montgomery: Crossing a Bridge into History
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River in Selma, has become one of the most iconic symbols of the modern struggle for civil and voting rights in America. It is also a focal point for the 54-mile route now memorialized as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.