Fort Payne: The View From Lookout Mountain
by Brian S. Jones
The largest city along the Alabama portion of Lookout Mountain Parkway is Fort Payne (256-845-1524). It is located on what was originally an important village in the Cherokee Nation and was home to Sequoyah who created the Cherokee alphabet that made reading and writing in that language possible. History tells us that Sequoyah is the only person ever to conceive an alphabet in its entirety.
A canvas of scenic beauty year-round is the best way to describe the Lookout Mountain area of northeastern Alabama, especially in DeKalb County, near Fort Payne. Native poplars, dogwoods, maples and hickories explode throughout the area in the fall and provide a panoramic showcase of vibrant yellow, gold and orange. Chock-full of natural splendor, the area is also known for its protected forestlands, which are rich with greenery in the spring. Little River Canyon, considered a marvel of nature and a recreational wonder, boasts a river that begins and ends entirely on top of a mountain and attracts visitors throughout the year. Many come here simply to view the beautiful waterfalls; others come to enjoy some of the country’s best whitewater kayaking.
History of Fort Payne
Fort Payne derived its name from the fort commanded by Maj. John Payne that was built here in the 1830s by the U.S. Army and used to corral American Indians, whose Cherokee ancestors had lived in the area for thousands of years, before removal to the West. As a stop on the railroad line between Birmingham and Chattanooga, Fort Payne flourished and became a boomtown during the late 1880s. Unlike the gold rush out West, this area experienced a coal and iron rush when an influx of workers came here from New England with the lure of instant riches. Many of the town’s historic buildings date from this period, including the Fort Payne Opera House, the W.B. Davis Mill Building and the Fort Payne Depot Museum.
Sadly, the boom that brought attention to the town in the latter 1800s was soon a bust. The area fell into decline before coming back in the early 1900s as the center of hosiery manufacturing – an industry that earned Fort Payne the nickname of “Sock Capital of the World.” Fort Payne is credited with developing athletic socks. As textile industries began moving overseas in the 1990s, the area around Fort Payne began to diversify again. This time, city leaders used tourism as the means of attracting people to the Lookout Mountain area to enjoy its scenic beauty and nature-based activities. Today, in addition to being a scenic mountain town, Fort Payne is home to members of the former country music group Alabama.
Fort Payne Depot Museum
When visiting the area, there are a number of attractions you’ll want to be sure to see. Among them is the Fort Payne Depot (105 Fifth St. N.E.; 256–845–5714). Constructed in 1891 out of pink sandstone in the Richardson Romanesque style of architecture, the depot was a main stop on the railroad line with two express mail trains and six passenger trains passing through daily. With its central location, the depot also became the town’s unofficial community center. Locals used it as a gathering place to catch up with friends and family who would come into town from their farms.
Politics and “just a little friendly gossip” was usually the talk of the day at the depot, especially on Sunday afternoons when many stopped to visit after church before heading back to their rural areas. The depot remained in service as a train station until 1970 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places the following year. Today, the depot serves as a museum of local history with separate collections for railroad history, Native American heritage, war memorabilia and DeKalb County history.
Fort Payne Opera House
The Fort Payne Opera House (510 Gault Ave. N.; 256–845–6888) was built in 1889 and is still in use today. It began life as a venue for live performances and was used for public forums before being converted to use as a theater during the silent movie era. The Fort Payne Opera House has been completely restored and is today used as a cultural center for the community. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and the National Register of 19th Century Theaters in America.
Mountain Music – The Country Group Alabama
“My home’s in Alabama,” so sing the members of the legendary music group who grew up in Fort Payne and took the state’s name for their band. When visiting their hometown, you’ll find life-sized bronze statues of group members on display on the corner of Union Park facing the intersection of Gault Avenue and Fourth Street North downtown. The band was formed in 1969 by Randy Owen and his cousin Teddy Gentry. Their musician friend and Fort Payne native Jeff Cook soon joined them. Although the group has disbanded, in the height of its career, Alabama released 21 gold, platinum and multiplatinum albums, had 42 No. 1 singles and sold more than 73 million records. They have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and were named the Country Group of the Century in 1999 by the Recording Industry Association of America.
A must-see for any fan or country music lover is the Alabama Fan Club and Museum (101 Glenn Blvd. S.W.; 256–845–1646) located at the intersection of AL Highway 35 and U.S. Highway 11 less than a mile off I–59 at Exit 218. This museum houses the group’s many awards, collections from their touring days and a great gift shop.
Little River Canyon National Preserve
Little River Canyon was carved out by the river after thousands of years and is one of the deepest canyons in this part of the United States. To get there via AL Highway 35, take the I–59 exit and go east about 10 miles.
At Little River, there is a 23-mile drive along the canyon’s rim that offers spectacular views into the 700-foot-deep gorge. The drive features several stop-off points where you can pull over and get photographs.
There are three major waterfalls in Little River Canyon. Little River Falls marks the beginning of the canyon and is located off Highway 35 next to the bridge separating the town of Gaylesville from Fort Payne. This is your first stop on a scenic tour entering from the north. An expanded boardwalk project completed in 2012 leads you directly to the 45-foot waterfall. Next is DeSoto Falls, which is located on the West Fork of the river and is 104 feet high. Grace’s High Falls is the last of the major three and is Alabama’s highest waterfall at 133 feet. The falls are seasonal. The best time to view them is in the fall, winter or spring. Lack of rain often diminishes the falls in the summer.
Besides the beautiful falls, visitors will discover that Little River Canyon is a hiker’s delight with beautiful natural forests and sandstone cliffs towering 600 feet above the canyon floor. There are several hiking trails you can take along the edges of the canyon. These trails allow you to get some great views of the entire canyon area. Eberhart Point is the best point for hiking down to Pine Tree Hole at the bottom of the canyon. The more adventurous can even put in there for some whitewater rafting fun. As visitors will discover, the Little River Canyon area is also a land of beauty and legends. One of the most interesting legends is the local one about Littlefoot. Several years ago, a small petting zoo was in operation near Little River Canyon. The family running the zoo ran into financial difficulties and ended up closing. The remaining animals were being moved to another facility when an escape occurred. A small family of monkeys took advantage of an open transport cage and ran off into the woods. Then the reports started.
Besides the beautiful falls, visitors will discover that Little River Canyon is a hiker’s delight with beautiful natural forests and sandstone cliffs towering 600 feet above the canyon floor.
As the legend goes, a group of rafters noticed something moving in the trees and that it appeared to be following them down the river. A Cub Scout troop had pine cones playfully thrown at them from the treetops. A group of hikers left their backpacks along the riverbank and returned to find their snacks missing and several small footprints in the surrounding mud. A retired engineer from Huntsville took a blurry photo of a small hairy figure walking upright and dragging what appeared to be an Igloo cooler. These occurrences soon became known as Littlefoot sightings. So when hiking Little River Canyon, just remember to keep one eye on the tree branches and the other on your snacks.
The 14,000-acre site encompassing Little River Canyon was made a part of a national preserve by an act of Congress in 1992 to ensure that its beauty can be enjoyed for generations to come.
Experience the Beauty of DeSoto State Park
DeSoto State Park (7104 DeSoto Parkway N.E.; 256–845–5380) is located eight miles northeast of Fort Payne. One visit and it’s easy to see why DeSoto was voted as one of America’s Top 10 State Parks by Camping Life magazine. The park spreads over 3,500 acres along the outer ridge of Lookout Mountain and embraces some of the state’s most dazzling natural wonders. The best way to enjoy this wonderful state park is to get out and experience it.
DeSoto was voted one of America’s Top 10 State Parks by Camping Life magazine.
DeSoto State Park has 12 miles of hiking trails. The Azalea Cascade Boardwalk Trail offers a 360-yard walk designed for hikers of all experience levels. There is a 20-foot octagon deck at the end of the trail that overlooks a natural pool created by the Azalea Cascade. The area was named for the beautiful wild azaleas that bloom here in mid-April. During the summer and fall seasons, weekend interpretive programs and guided hikes are offered.
The Lodge at DeSoto State Park (1299 Blalock Drive N.E.; 256-845-5380) was built during the 1930s. At the time, it was used as a group lodge and a dance hall. During the late 1970s, additions were made around the main part of the lodge and a motel constructed next to it. Inside the lobby you can still see the front center stone with the word “Lodge” carved into it. The original part of the structure was turned into the Mountain Inn Restaurant, which is in operation today. Right outside the restaurant is a large deck that’s great for relaxing and enjoying the mountainous view. Lodging options available at the state park include chalets, log cabins, motel rooms and plenty of campsites. There is also a picnic area with a playground, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a nature center.
Where To Eat
Make sure you try the JoJo potatoes at the Bar-B-Q Place (1502 Gault Ave. S.; 256–845–6155). This is one of those hole-in-the-wall places that serve up good authentic Southern barbecue and plenty of it.
The “Cool” Experience at Orbix Hot Glass
An unexpected find in Fort Payne is Orbix Hot Glass (3869 County Road 275; 256–523–3188). Located on 26 acres atop Lookout Mountain bordering the Little River Canyon National Preserve, this glass-blowing studio and gallery offers fine hand-crafted decorative and functional glass, as well as glass-blowing classes. Orbix was started in the late 1990s by Cal and Christy Breed. Cal leads a team of glass blowers who handcraft each piece with great attention to form, balance and color. These master artisans are a wonder to watch. They use a blowpipe to inflate molten glass into a bubble. During the blowing process, the partially blown glass is then turned around and around and bits of glass are often added with the use of a smaller metal rod. Various colorants are also added in the process to make dazzling translucent colors. The form of glass blowing practiced at Orbix was first invented by the Phoenicians around 50 B.C.