Why our houses don’t face the Alabama

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 22, 2005

A recent visitor to the Old Depot Museum asked why our houses turn their backs to the river. Several answers occurred to me, but not one I knew to a certainty to be correct.

When the first houses were built in Selma, perhaps 200 years ago, the river was a totally untamed stream. Those early settlers who made their way into this territory must have crossed the Alabama by raft or on horseback or by floating their wagons, loaded with all their worldly possessions, across its swift current.

From reading journals and letters written by members of these pioneer families we know they tried to reach their destination in late summer, when streams were running low and sandbars visible in the water, giving easier crossing.

Another reason for timing the end of their migration thus is that their first rude shelters must be erected before winter set in. And I suspect at this point they were sick of the sight and sound of the river.

They might also have been ill from the fevers they believed were caused by mists hanging low over the backwaters and swamps along its course. They were not too far wrong – mosquitoes breeding in the stagnant water were the actual cause.

Other anxieties were associated with their dislike, or fear, of the mighty Alabama. Rivers were the highways of the Indian nations that peopled the Mississippi Territory. Some tribes were peaceful, others warlike and all were an unknown denominator to these genteel former residents of Virginia and the Carolinas. Imagine if you will, standing on the river bluff and looking down upon a fleet of canoes swiftly paddled by Indian braves in war paint.

The Fort Mims massacre is not that long ago in time.

In flood the river is also greatly to be feared. Rolling and roiling like a maddened giant, it sweeps everything before its watery path, destroying crops, animals, buildings and people impartially. To see it enraged is to fear it always.

I have a pretty good idea of the reason 20th century Selmians turned their backs on the river. Even in my childhood the still-wild Alabama in flood was a muddy brown current of swirling whirlpools, long-dead animals borne bloated and stiff-legged atop its swift-moving surface and the sickening stench of sewer gases rising from the effluvium following in its wake.

No more. Not wholly tamed but a cleaner, calmer giant, the Alabama flows today in pristine loveliness. Early on a recent morning I drove slowly over the Pettus Bridge and looked beyond the railing onto a scene of breath-taking beauty.

Far below the broad dark river moved silkily toward the distant bend, its ripples gold-tipped in the rising sun. Wavelets lapped softly at the sandy fringes of it banks. Dark green foliage of tall trees screening the high bluffs that gave Selma its name brushed against the soft blue of the sky. And high above, a flight of egrets soared into the sun.

Perhaps our houses do turn their backs on the river, but our hearts never shall.