I take the trail by the river towards the downtown area and circle around the new open-air amphitheater, deserted as it waits for warm summer/fall evenings, go by the giant wooden trestle which groans as the slow freight trains make their ponderous way high above, and walk up the street. There I find a historic marker for the Trail of Tears. Creek Indians stopped here on the Trail, evicted from their homes. They were going west, the marker notes, but to where exactly or to what fate is unspecified. The marker contains the speech of chief Eufaula to the members of the state legislature at the nearby capitol building, now an empty shell. In his speech, Eufaula acknowledges his sadness at the loss of his people’s former home, noting, “In these lands of Alabama, which have belonged to my forefathers and where their bones lie buried, I see that the Indian fires are going out. Soon they will be cold.” However, he eschews bitterness and speaks, instead, of friendship with the white people and the belief that in this new home in the west the extinguished Indian fires will be relighted. The speech is measured, gracious, speaking of a feeling of “brotherly kindness” and good will to “the people of Alabama who build the great houses and make the laws.” There is no follow-up marker. Reading these words I want to research the fate of Eufaula’s people, but I can already guess at it: despite his hopes, his kindly words, the men in the grand capitol building above the wide, muddy river had given Eufaula and his people nothing but disappointment and loss.
Going past the marker and up the hill, I wander through the ruins of what looks like a Greek or Roman temple: some columns, the remainder of a rotunda, the outline of rooms. The park’s name, Capitol Park, provides the clue: this was the capitol building when the town was, for around twenty years, the state capitol, and these rooms, now open to the sun and wind, are the rooms in which Eufaula spoke those words. Built in the 1820s, the ruin was once a three-story building with a magnificent dome created by an English architect who built parts of the nearby university, as well as colleges and state buildings in North Carolina and Mississippi. Looking at the plans of the building, I see echoes of the England of Jane Austen: Regency architecture full of creamy Crescents and Georgian Rows. It feels incongruous here above the banks of the wide, slow-moving river, looking over the forests and other remnants of the 19th century past, such as the old inn, its brick a faded red, the rough mortar peeking out, which was moved to the park as museum. It’s hard to imagine this town as the center of anything, now when all the energy seems to have flowed in the direction of the university, and all the industries of the past are gone. Then, it may have seemed a vital center of a changing world, its capitol building standing as a gracious hall of government to everyone—well, not everyone, of course, as the marker and its words remind me. The remains of the capitol—lost to fire in the 1920s—is about three blocks from the current downtown, but amidst the sleepy old houses, turned to lawyers’ offices, and old brick buildings, you wouldn’t even know it’s there. This town is full of ghosts, of memories, of history marked and unmarked, and I am only slowly, slightly, beginning to understand it.