What follows is a brief summary of the incredible history of the Coosa River. If history is in fact your cup of tea, we highly recommend you find a copy of “Rivers of History: Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba, and Alabama” by Harvey H. Jackson III which is an excellent, lengthy historical account of the history of Alabama told through the lens of our rivers.
Generally, the history of the Coosa is broken into three parts: the early history of the natives and the arrival of the Europeans, the riverboat era that the Coosa is most famous for, and the 20th century when the river was impounded.
1) EARLY HISTORY
In September of 1540, Hernando de Soto entered the Coosa watershed and found the powerful Chief Tascaluza sitting on a cushion high atop a mound in the large town of Atahachi (now near Fort Toulouse), at the juncture of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers. Chief Tascaluza led the Spaniards southwest towards the town of Mabila, near Mobile Bay, where Tascaluza gave them a choice: fight or go away. The Spaniards barely defeated Tascaluza’s men; there is little doubt that the Battle of Mabila was one of the bloodiest battles between Indians and Europeans ever fought in North America.
In the early 18th century, an alliance called the Creek Indians was formed, comprised of several Native American river chiefdoms from the Coosa, Tallapoosa and Chattahoochee Valleys. Later, competing trade by the English and French led to the division of the Creek people into Upper and Lower Creeks. In 1717, the French established Fort Toulouse high atop the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa. The Creeks would peacefully trade with the French and English for the next four decades.
In 1805, the Lower Creeks allowed the United States government to build a horse path by which mail could be carried. The path crossed the Chattahoochee River and followed the Alabama below the forks of the Coosa and the Tallapoosa. By 1811, the horse path in the Southern Coosa Valley had become a federal road and was filled with Georgians and Carolinians heading toward Alabama. Between August of 1813 and March of 1814 American frontiersmen and Native Americans fought what is known as the Creek War, part of a larger conflict – the War of 1812. Ultimately it would decide the fate of Alabama.
The outcome of the Creek War opened up nearly three-fifths of the state of Alabama to European settlers. All this new land brought thousands of new settlers to the state in a frenzy known as “Alabama Fever.” Ultimately, what brought these people to Alabama was cotton and the rich Black Belt land did not disappoint them. During this era, river towns along the Coosa watershed were born. However, the early towns along the Coosa never flourished due to navigational problems, especially the infamous rapids of the “Devil’s Staircase” at the Coosa’s mouth – upon which Jordan Dam sits currently.
The last remnants of the Creek nation were removed from Alabama in the 1840s, many survivors were forced to walk west along the Trail of Tears. Settlers from all over the South began settling the rich land between the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers.
2) STEAMBOAT ERA
The Coosa’s first steamer, U.S.M. Coosa first appeared on its namesake on July 4, 1845. During this era navigation along the Coosa was still extremely difficult. Even with the difficult navigation, the Coosa River was still very crowded. Thirty-nine steamboats would flourish on the Coosa from 1845-1930. Ultimately, railroads would take away the potential for the Coosa steamboats.
In 1890, the United States cancelled all mail contracts with riverboats on the Coosa turning them over to the railroads. As other means of transportation became more readily available, fewer and fewer people cared about opening the Coosa to navigation. Competition from the railroads locked steamboats into the same hopeless cycle, and by the late 1930’s only a few steamers were left on our river.
3) ALABAMA POWER
Around the turn of the twentieth century, William Patrick Lay, scion of river valley pioneers and a leader in the Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association, was beginning to imagine other uses for the Coosa. By the late nineteenth century the age of electricity was dawning, and Lay was one of Alabama’s pioneers in the field. In 1887, he built the first electric power plant in Gadsden – a steam operation to only serve the town.
By 1903, William Patrick Lay was producing hydroelectric power at a plant on Big Wills Creek, a Coosa tributary, and selling it in the Attalla vicinity. The venture prospered, leaving the avid Lay dreaming of making more profits by harvesting power from a large river like the Coosa.
William Patrick Lay found two major partners, James Mitchell for financial support, and Thomas Martin for legal support. Together the group began work on the site of old Lock # 12. By 1914 Lay Dam was complete, turbines at the old Lock # 12 dam were generating power, and electricity was humming across transmission lines to sites as far away as Birmingham.
The 1920s roared for Alabama Power Company. In 1923, construction of Mitchell Dam was completed. In 1929 it was joined by Jordan Dam, which flooded the Coosa’s most infamous rapids, Devil’s Staircase.
On November 12, 1953, Alabama Power filed an application with the Federal Power Commission for a preliminary permit for a multi-dam project on the Coosa. The company would invest $100 million to build five dams on the river. The project would be completed in no more than ten years. Now things began to move fast and furiously. Weiss Dam was brought on the grid in 1962, Logan Martin in 1964 and Neely Henry in 1966.
Many mourned the loss of historic towns like Greensport, Binghamtown, and Easonville, with their churches, homes, schools, gins, stores, and cemeteries. Much was relocated; much could not be.