Tuscaloosa is one of America’s most unique names. Except for an east Texas ghost town, no other city, town, or county bears the name of the famous chief. However, it does show up in widely scattered parts of the country as a street name. Streets named for Tuscaloosa have various designations. Some are thoroughfares such as roads, streets, or avenues. Others may be short and local such as ways, traces, or lanes.
A raging torrent of muddy water swept past Tuscaloosa, completely submerging three closely spaced locks and dams. In the previous 32 hours, eight inches of rain had fallen and added to the already swollen river. University of Alabama President W. S. Wyman wrote that, “On April 16 there occurred the highest and most violent flood on the Black Warrior River ever known.” Fortunately, most of the city at that time sat safely above the water, and no lives were lost. There were other great floods, such as those of 1874, 1892, and 1979, but the spring flood of 1900 topped them all.
The Black Warrior is a major river in Central and West Alabama. It flows into the Tombigbee at Demopolis and extends through Tuscaloosa and into Jefferson County, where it branches into the Sipsey, Mulberry, and Locust Forks. It is 169 river miles in length, with a drainage basin that includes parts of 15 counties. In the Tuscaloosa area, North River and Hurricane Creek are major tributaries.
In the past, some considered it to be two separate rivers—the Black Warrior upstream from Tuscaloosa and the Warrior downstream. It has been said this was an attempt to increase spending for improvements, since Congress once appropriated funds on a per river basis. However, from the point of view of “fluvial geomorphology,” the science of how streams shape and are shaped by their surroundings, it could indeed be considered two rivers.
Above Tuscaloosa, the Black Warrior flows through the Appalachian Plateau. For countless millennia, the river has slowly cut through layers of bedrock to create a stable channel with a relatively narrow floodplain. In many areas, it is lined with cliffs and bluffs. Before navigation locks were built, there were numerous shoals and waterfalls.
Below Tuscaloosa lies the Coastal Plain, an area of little if any erosion resistant bedrock. There the river has created a broad flat floodplain. Like a slow-moving snake, the channel constantly changes position or meanders, eroding the outside of bends, while on the inside depositing sandbars that eventually become riverbanks. When bends expand too far, the river reroutes on a shorter path leaving channel remnants that become oxbow lakes and, eventually, swamps. Locally some of these include Snag, Moon, and Big Lakes near Fosters and Touson, Keaton, and Hull Lakes near Moundville. As oxbows slowly silt up they support cypress, tupelo gum, and other rooted vegetation, creating features such as Moody and Englewood Swamps.
For most of the 19th century, Tuscaloosa was the head of navigation. Beginning in the 1890s, 11 locks were eventually built, making the entire Black Warrior navigable. All but one were built with locally quarried Pottsville sandstone. These structures were known as Locks 7 through 17. By the second half of the 20th century, the original locks were replaced with four high-lift locks, three located in Tuscaloosa County.
Despite extensive modification, the Black Warrior and its tributaries are still home to a great variety of aquatic life. Recently, at least 130 species of fish have been documented, as well as 36 species of freshwater mussels (three times that found in all of Europe). It has been conjectured that these large numbers are due to a variety of habitats, long term geological stability, and a lack of glaciers during the Ice Ages.
Central and West Alabama receive about 50 inches of rainfall annually, resulting in an average runoff of about a million gallons per day per square mile of watershed. As a result, the average flow in the Black Warrior at Tuscaloosa is almost 8000 cubic feet per second, or about five billion gallons per day, more than enough for operating the locks and dams, generating power at three hydroelectric plants, and a number of other uses.
For thousands of years, people from ancient Native Americans to today’s population have utilized the Black Warrior River. The river and its tributaries continue to serve as wildlife habitat while providing water, transportation, food, recreation, and power for more than a million people—almost a quarter of all Alabamians.
The white-haired old man lay dying. He had exhorted his friends to “meet him in Heaven.” And just after midnight on a Sunday morning, he made his last trip.
The man was “Old Uncle Davy” Foster, the ferryman at a crossing of the Black Warrior River, about six miles southwest of Tuscaloosa. He was born a “free person of color” in Norfolk, Virginia, but as a youth was kidnapped by a slave trader, sold to Col. James Foster, and brought to Tuscaloosa County in about 1822. For 45 years, he worked at the ferry that bore the family name.
Davy Foster was described as “austere, taciturn, and imperturbable…gruff as a polar bear,” but “exceedingly kindhearted and gentle.” He was said to have never denied a poor man free passage. Editor John F. Warren wrote in the March 2, 1879 issue of the The Tuscaloosa Times that, “the old man has now crossed the ‘shining river,’ and landed his life-boat on the shores of eternity.” Warren added, “we never saw him without thinking of Charon,* and the River Styx.” He was a fearless man of great endurance and was attacked several times in the course of his duties. Once, he was cut and stabbed 11 times, but he refused to drink the whiskey prescribed by a doctor. Instead, he was dosed with turpentine, and recovered.
To some, he was known as “Preacher Davy.” Early in life, he was a Methodist minister. In 1837, he joined Grant’s Creek Baptist Church. As a preacher, he was regarded by those who knew him as “an honest man and an upright Christian.”
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to travel in Tuscaloosa County and much of the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries was something to which 21st century travelers seldom give a second thought—how to cross a river or other large body of water when there was no bridge. Ferries are an ancient invention in use in much of the world for thousands of years. Some were propelled by oars or push poles while others might have utilized cables or ropes secured on both sides of a stream. Modern ferries in developed countries are typically motorized.
In early Alabama, ferries were privately owned. Most operated 24 hours a day in all but the most extreme weather. They transported people, livestock, produce and all types of goods. These flatboats or barges also carried wagons and carriages, along with their horses and oxen, across the state’s numerous rivers and other bodies of water. Some of those in Tuscaloosa County included the Sharpes, Sanders, Dunlaps, Newtown, Wallace, McWrights, Cleveland, Hollis and Fosters Ferries. The Newtown Ferry crossed the Black Warrior River in downtown Tuscaloosa near the old state capitol. All have disappeared, but some of the names (Fosters, McWrights and Sanders) survive to describe the roads that once led to them.
Foster’s Ferry has been gone for over a century, having been replaced by a succession of bridges. The road served by Davy Foster and his boat became an integral part of America’s transportation network. In future years, it became U.S. Route 11, one of the world’s first transcontinental highways and, later, Interstates 20 and 59.
*Note: In classical Greek mythology, the River Styx separated the land of the living from Hades—the land of the dead. Departed souls were transported across by the ferryman Charon. Upon reaching Hades the souls of the heroic or virtuous went to the Elysian Fields paradise while the wicked were condemned to the Tatarean hell. Those who could not pay or died unburied were said to roam the shores of the river for a hundred years. In ancient times people were often buried with a small coin in or on their mouths to pay Charon’s toll.
Have you ever wondered how people decorated their homes years ago? What did everyone do if they didn't have pre-lit trees, ready-made ornaments and miles and miles of packaged garland to string up? They got creative, and the results were beautiful. If you'd like to see for yourself, plan to attend the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society's annual Christmas Open House on Sunday, Dec. 4 from 2 to 4 p.m.
The name “Tuscaloosa” dates back nearly 500 years, making it one of the oldest North American place names. A Portuguese officer serving with Spanish Conquistador Hernando DeSoto and known only as “A Gentleman of Elvas” first recorded the name we now know as Tuscaloosa. On August 20, 1540, he chronicled a powerful ruler and his domain and principal city known as “Tascalusa.” Other writers on the expedition noted the name as Taszaluza, Tascaluca, and Tastaluca.
A slightly built, mustachioed man stood atop a chair. His unamplified Southern voice boomed “Alabama casts 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood!” The speaker was Alabama’s Gov. W. W. Brandon of Tuscaloosa. It was June 30, 1924 at the Democratic National Convention held in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The first presidential nominating ballot, the Roll Call of the States, had begun. Nineteen candidates received votes—no one got a majority.
The Joint Board on Interstate Highways concluded its meeting on April 21, 1925, by recommending the creation of the first nationally numbered system of transcontinental highways. They proposed 21 routes. Those ending with one would generally travel north-south, while those ending with zero generally would go east-west. Four of these routes, 11, 31, 80 and 90, crossed Alabama. Route 11 passed through Tuscaloosa.
This past weekend, C-SPAN was in Montgomery, filming segments for its C-Span Cities Tour, which features the literary life and history of a specific city. Now, C-SPAN is visiting Tuscaloosa.
Mayor Maddox was set to host C-SPAN at Tuscaloosa’s historic The Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion on Monday morning. More will be revealed about the specific segments and stories covered. And mark your calendars, because Tuscaloosa’s C-SPAN Cities Tour segment is set to air April 16 and 17.
By Jim Ezell
University of Alabama students began flooding the Quadrangle. It was early Wednesday morning, January 19, 1977, and classes had been cancelled. Nearly five inches of snow fell during the night, and soon thousands were engaged in what one observer called the “Super Bowl of snowball fights.” A truck dragged a tethered shopping cart jammed with merrymakers, a few skied, and others hurled snowballs at cars on University Blvd. A Tuscaloosa News writer described the scene as “pandemonium.”
Accumulations of snow are relatively rare in Tuscaloosa. The meteorological conditions needed for snow to fall and accumulate, or “stick,” seldom occur. An average of less than one inch falls each winter, however, years often pass between significant events.
By Jim Ezell
The cheerleaders shouted, “Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar, all for Bama stand up and holler!” Thousands leapt to their feet and cheered. At football games across the U.S. these words are repeated countless times each season. But few will understand or even wonder about the origin of the cheer.
The phrase is based on the “two-bit” nickname for a quarter dollar. In other words, two bits equal 25-cents. Therefore, a single bit would be 12½-cents and a dollar would contain eight bits. This doesn’t seem logical, since there are no U. S. coins of such seemingly odd denominations.
In the first decades of American independence, there was a shortage of domestically produced precious metals for minting coins. However, there was one source of precious metals that seemed inexhaustible—the mines of Mexico and South America, controlled by the Spanish Empire and the nations that arose from its collapse.