A group of Spaniards were led before the great Chief Tascalusa (Tuscaloosa) at an Indian town somewhere in what is now central Alabama. He sat on cushions, while nearby stood an elite warrior “holding a sort of fan of deerskin which kept the sun from him, round and the size of a shield, quartered with black and white, with a cross made in the middle ... It was set on a small and very long staff. This was the device he bore in his wars.” This scene was described by a DeSoto Expedition chronicler known as “A Gentleman of Elvas.” It was Sunday, October 10, 1540.
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.
It was Friday, August 14, 1936. Photographer Alex Bush motioned for a young man in overalls to stand next to the door of a dilapidated brick cottage behind an old house in Tuscaloosa. Bush released the shudder of his 5x7 inch sheet film camera* and recorded for the Library of Congress the image of a building that is no longer standing.
Thomas Maxwell entered the Independent Monitor office and revealed a “stone idol” to publisher Marmaduke Slade. The representation of a human with a flattened head stood 10-inches tall. Slade described this object in the July 13, 1842, issue of his early Tuscaloosa newspaper and expressed doubt about their use by “the red men of our forest.” Four years later, he reported a large “curiously wrought earthen vase” containing bones and a human skull. These artifacts came from the nearby village of Carthage.
It was March 1851. A mustachioed Frenchman lit a candle in the still air beneath the dome of the Pantheon, a former cathedral that was being used as a mausoleum in Paris. A polished brass sphere tethered by a 220-foot steel wire had been pulled to one side of its resting point and was released, as the flame severed a single silk thread. Every 16 seconds, the shining orb swung back and forth above the marble floor. But it was apparent something was different. With each completed oscillation, the pendulum’s path moved slightly to the left of the original release point.
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.
A group of Tuscaloosans gathered in the rooftop garden of the recently erected Alston Building at the corner of 6th Street and Greensboro Avenue. It was about 6 p.m. in the early winter evening of Tuesday, January 25, 1910. In the western sky, just below Venus, a bright streak extended to the horizon. The year of the comet began unexpectedly early. A spectacular upstart had arrived three months earlier than the highly-anticipated Halley’s Comet.
The paddlewheel turned, the blades churned and Cherokee slipped away from the dock. Her steam whistle could be heard for miles, drowning out the ever-present sound of the shoals and waterfalls upstream from Tuscaloosa’s wharf. Deck hands stowed lines and hawsers as the morning sun shone over the pilot’s shoulder, giving him a clear view ahead as he carefully scanned the water for snags and sandbars. The decks were stacked high with musky bales of cotton. Smoke billowed from the twin stacks and, occasionally, sparks flew aloft. For the cotton and some passengers, the voyage would end in two days at Mobile while others might disembark at Demopolis, Coffeeville or St. Stephens.
A new day began; it was about 1:00 a.m., Friday morning, Sept. 2, 1859. The city lacked streetlights and the crescent moon had set, but Editor W. H. Fowler of Tuscaloosa’s Independent Monitor noted that people could “read distinctly” in the soft light emanating from the sky. The northern lights, or aurora borealis, was making its “most brilliant appearance in many years.”