Falls City: A History of Development and Demise
Written by: Elizabeth L. McCandless
In 1961, Alabama Power Company began flooding the Warrior River Basin to create a reservoir for a new power house. This reservoir affected portions of Walker, Winston, and Cullman Counties. The company constructed a 300 foot, 2,200 foot long earth and rock dam in Walker County, Alabama. The dam, located in the upper New Hope area, bore the name of Lewis M. Smith, a former president of Alabama Power Company. The new power plant activated on September 5, 1961. This action inundated 21,000 acres and created over 500 miles of shoreline. Citizens of all three affected counties made it a social activity to go to the creeks and rivers in the area and watch the flood waters rise. The accuracy of the surveyors amazed many as the water came within six inches of their marks.
Alabama Power had executed an extensive survey to determine the location of the lake and dam. As early as the 1940s, the company monitored rain gauges in the area. Selected local residents received a salary of seventy five cents a month to report rainfall data. Work crews surveyed the area beginning in 1951. The dam's progress remained public interest for over a decade. Company officials considered the area ideal because of its remoteness. A deep reservoir such as this could hold a maximum amount of water without taking up excess space. The power company performed many studies in the area to be flooded. Contractors cleared the timber from the land, relocated old graves, and dug a diversion channel to reroute water during construction of the dam. An aerial survey conducted by Aero Service Corporation launched the project. Maps created from the aerial data facilitated several projects. Representatives of the company located grave sites and procured consent from the next of kin to move the remains out of the flood zone. Material testing enabled Alabama Power to locate nearby dam building materials.
The historical and archaeological value held little consideration when determining the location for the reservoir. Alabama Power did not fund any archaeological inquiries before inundation of the lake. Historic preservation laws did not take effect until 1966, five years after the creation of Smith Lake. Residents of the area knew of several important archaeological sites but did not try to preserve any of them because no one truly believed that Alabama Power would create the lake. Clear Creek Falls, legendary twin waterfalls, also became a part of the lake. These falls had served as a geographic landmark for centuries. The upper falls measured 43 feet and the lower falls 37 feet. The falls reached a peak in popularity in 1961 as all the local newspapers published articles of farewell. People made pilgrimages as the falls slipped beneath Smith Lake. On the final day, one man in the crowd raised his fist and proclaimed, "The Lord will not allow it to stand!" The gentleman referred to the lake that would hide the falls within its waters.
From the turn of the century until its demise in 1961, the falls retained their popularity as an informal recreation area. The town of Falls City, however, dwindled to nothing. The potential for a booming development had been tapped and failed. Falls City did not become a prosperous town despite developer's efforts. The town possessed potential but experienced many setbacks. Many factors led to the town's demise. The location of the town with no railroads and no highways played a key role in its decline.
A collection of Alabama road maps revealed the story of Falls City. A 1901 map labeled the town as Elk, Alabama. By 1909, the cartographer had replaced Elk with the name Falls City. In 1961, a finger-shaped lake appeared on the map which cut Falls City off from Walker County. The town no longer existed, but it remained a place name on the state map until 1980. A traveler could still follow the map to Falls City. After 1977, the traveler's efforts resulted only in finding a historical marker which described the nearby falls now under Smith Lake.
The name of the area changed twice during its development. Clear Creek Falls established a post office on September 29, 1853. Postmaster Benjamin Boteler ran the office. In 1888, postmaster John M. Wilson filed paperwork to change the name of the office to Elk, Alabama. While Fred M. Wilson served as postmaster, the name changed to Falls City. This final place name stuck and people referred to the area as "Fall City" regardless of the year the speaker mentioned. The United States Postal Service abolished the Falls City post office on November 30, 1953. The office had served residents of the area for just over 100 years. Twenty-four postmasters served terms at this post office. Some postmasters served for only a short time or took office only until a permanent replacement could be found. The post office would have been abolished sooner had it not been for the willingness of area residents to serve as postmaster. The history of the Falls City post office served as proof that change occurred slowly in Falls City. Andrew Baldwin carried the mail by horse and buggy beginning in 1922. The mail carrier used an automobile after Baldwin's retirement in 1951.
The Clear Creek Falls had served Native Americans (Chickasaw and Cherokee tribes) for centuries as a gathering place, burial ground, and navigational landmark. Due to isolation, white settlers did not discover the falls until 1812. Jesse Livingston first encountered the falls on a trip into country recently acquired from the Chickasaw tribe. Livingston and his party traveled by horseback to reach the falls. Since the falls held a fascination for Livingston, he returned two years later to the area and built a cabin.
Unpaved roads developed as the number of settlers in the area increased. A traveler endured many miles of twisting, winding roads and forded a creek from any direction to approach the area. In the 1940s, travel to Falls City became so treacherous that many cars ended up in ditches. A person could not travel in the area without seeing at least two motorists in need of a tow truck.
The first steel bridge built at Falls City connected the post office to the outside world in 1900. A second steel bridge enabled a school bus to service Falls City. This bridge excited people who frequented Falls City so they piled into vehicles and crossed the bridge to visit relatives.
Residents of Falls City knew that better access to the town needed to be established. A group of citizens took the initiative in 1926 and graded their own road over Clear Creek Hill. This hill presented the biggest obstacle between the town and Jasper, Alabama. D.W. Day donated gravel from his stockpile. Day also appealed to the merchants of Jasper for financial assistance for the road building project. He argued that easier access to Jasper would result in a boom for Jasper merchants. The merchants, however, did not share the same view and few, if any, donated to the project.
Other attempted access routes to Falls City involved the railroad. The promise of the railroad lifted the hopes of area residents. The mere notion of easier transportation promoted development as people began moving into the area. Bids for the railroad sparked competition between fledgling municipalities. Developers of the area knew that strategic placement of the railroad could make or break a town. Both the Winston and Walker county newspapers appealed to residents to cooperate with railroad promoters. Railroad representatives solicited right of way easements and money from residents. Sometimes the railroad promoters took money and disappeared, never to be heard from again. Two lines, the Decatur and Aberdeen and the S & B Railroad, considered intersecting at Clear Creek Falls during the economic boom in the 1880s. Both railroad companies later decided to use alternate routes. The cost of construction in this area would have been high. Because of the hilly landscape, building there required many trestles and tunnels. Construction materials such as railroad ties and iron rails would have been physically impossible and financially inadvisable to transport across this rough, isolated terrain. Despite these problems, many companies entertained the prospect of building a line through Falls City.
In 1889, Colonel Frank B. Merill of Mobile leased the Gulf & Chicago Railroad. He revealed plans for a line which would have run from Mobile to Jackson, Tennessee. Colonel Merill personally visited small towns to raise funds for the survey. Colonel Merill raised the hopes of residents in Falls City (then known as Elk). But by 1907, the Gulf & Chicago Railway faced bankruptcy. The company owned one line which ran through Mississippi. This line had been leased out. No more lines were developed. The lease had provided Gulf & Chicago Railway with its only source of income. The company ended the year 1907 in red.
The Manchester Lumber Company had a railroad line that came within two miles of Falls City. In 1906, D.W. Day approached Manchester Lumber Company with a proposal to extend the existing railway to Falls City and convert the line to electric power. The power produced by the falls would have fueled the proposed Interurban railway. The lumber company rejected the idea.
The Russell and Myers (Chicago, Illinois); Decatur, Danville, and Southwest Railroad; and the Central of Alabama all looked at the prospect of building a railroad through Falls City. None of the companies included the town in their routes. Falls City would be left out of the railroad routes permanently.
In April of 1920, the lack of railroad access became apparent. A tornado devastated much of Winston County including sections of the Falls City area. County residents had to rely on their own resources to recuperate and rebuild. A reporter from the Mountain Eagle revealed that storm victims had not received the same volume of aid than those in other counties affected by the tornado, and he cited the lack of railroads as the sole reason that aid could not reach Winston Countians.
Numerous attempts, legal and illegal, to harness the power of the falls also failed. The James-Randall Gang allegedly used the falls to power a counterfeit operation in the 1820s. A Tuscaloosa posse captured the gang members and took them back to Tuscaloosa County for hanging. Even honest uses of the falls met with misfortune. Jesse Livingston's mill may have been destroyed by flood. Livingston constructed the first grist mill in the area in 1828. The mill consisted of an overshot wheel, grindstones, and a log dam which routed water to the wheel. No structure covered the mill. D.W. Day established the Falls City Power Company. The company, headquartered in his hometown of New Decatur, appeared to exist in name only. Despite all of Day's efforts to harness the power of the falls, no electricity serviced this area until the 1940s.
Clear Creek frequently overflowed its banks. Even a Native American legend alluded to swollen waters at the falls. Flooding activity made it impossible for structures to remain on the creek banks for any length of time. Alabama Power cited flood control as a benefit of impounding the Sipsey River.
The falls generated power for all the mill operations located on Clear Creek. Thomas Wilson operated a grist mill at the falls between 1870 and 1880. Wilson moved to Brushy Creek and established a grist mill there sometime after 1880. Unlike the Clear Creek mill, the Brushy Creek mill prospered and served Winston County citizens for fifty years. N.B. Posey purchased a mill in 1903 at Falls City. Posey operated a grist mill, cotton gin, and shingle mill. Tubbs and Shepherd operated a saw mill in 1907. D.W. Day ran his sawmill by generator. Goge and Neely, lumbermen from Fulton, Mississippi, purchased acreage at Falls City in 1926. The lumbermen erected a saw mill for the sole purpose of processing the timber they cut. According to Fred M. Wilson, the sawmill suffered due to lack of laborers.
By the late 1950s the decline of lumber and other forest products caused a substantial loss of jobs. The forests of Walker and Winston Counties became depleted. Merchantable timber reserves grew scarce. The cost of lumber production rose. Existing mills could not modernize due to the lack of financing. All these were factors in the decline.
D.W. Day took quite a promotional interest in the town of Falls City. He generated many articles and brochures about the town. Day produced a brochure in 1907 to entice industry to locate in Falls City. This brochure outlined all the resources that Falls City had to offer. Day listed natural resources such as coal, iron ore, timber, and water power. He also promised the Interurban Railroad and a power plant. Both of these ventures failed. The businesses listed as already established at the site included a sawmill, two general merchandise stores, a drug store, a couple of two story concrete store buildings, a hotel, a Methodist Church, "a good public school," a cotton gin, and a grist mill. The brochure cited real estate as the only way to make a fortune. Lots offered for sale cost $100.00 for residence or corner business lots and $50.00 for inside business lots. Day provided financing at the rate of $5.00 down and $5.00 per month without interest. Anyone who located a factory at Falls City acquired the land for free.
Even with the lure of free land, it would have been folly to establish a factory at Falls City. A factory owner would have faced transportation problems. The cost involved to manufacture a product in the area would have been too high with no easy means to bring raw materials to the factory and to transport the finished product to market.
A second promotional brochure created by Day surpassed the first in prose and romantic appeal. The producers of both brochures appealed to the reader's desire for beauty and tranquility. Both placed emphasis on camping and other recreational activities of the area.
The second brochure touted an offer not to be overlooked. The Federal Guarantee Company offered Guaranty Gold Bonds with every land purchase at Falls City. If a landowner chose not to keep the land, he could simply present the guarantee to the First National Bank of Hartselle for a full repayment.
Services offered by the town became crucial in the attraction of residents and merchants. Since travel to the town proved to be tedious and difficult, all amenities had to be offered locally. No school building existed in Falls City. A local church furnished space for a school. Teachers served for short terms, summers included.
In addition to the post office, Falls City boasted a hospital owned and operated by Dr. William R. Snow. He closed his hospital in 1922 when Walker County built a hospital in Jasper that offered better facilites. Snow still practiced medicine until his death at the age of 95. Even with a doctor, post office, school, stores, and recreational activities, Falls City's isolation deterred people from taking up residence there.
Recreation played an important role for the area residents. Organizations hosted numerous picnics over the years. In July of 1926, the Falls City Baptist Church hosted a homecoming picnic for people who had moved away from the area. The local papers announced activities such as Fourth of July picnics and a debating society in 1897. A city park had been erected during the development effort of 1907. In the 1940s, young people of the area walked to nearby Arley for a coke or visited the falls or the Sipsey River.
The Fourth of July picnic held at the falls in 1907 attracted more than 2,000 people. The picnic planners showcased the new Masonic Hall. Fred M. Wilson gave the welcoming speech for this well publicized event. This particular picnic lured people to see the development of Falls City. A writer for The New Era chastised Captain Day because he did not advertise in the county's paper. "When they put an ad in the home paper, people will see that the movement contains more than wind." The writer referred to the promoter's determination to cling to ties with Walker County although the area of Falls City had become part of Winston County on February 12, 1850.
Although people held the general attitude that they did not want to live at Falls City, everyone visited to take advantage of recreation. Visitors picnicked, swam, and posed for family portriats at Clear Creek Falls. Also, several people were married at the falls.
Despite bad roads and lack of alternate forms of transportation, travelers from out of state would come to view the falls. Many would stop at the last house before the falls to ask directions. At least one picture post card depicted the falls, prompting curious travelers to come see for themselves. The Alabama state road map listed Clear Creek Falls as a tourist attraction through the year 1961.
Dr. Snow and other residents had attempted to turn the falls into a state park. At one point, Snow had built a concession stand and a parking lot at the falls. He had tried deeding land to the United States Forest Service in hopes that a recreation area would be created. A stipulation in the deed stated if the Forest Service ever sold the land, it would revert back to the previous owner. When Alabama Power acquired the land from the Forest Service, Snow had to be paid also.
Certain factors controlled the potential of a site as a recreational area. These factors included growth in urbanization and increased mobility of the population. Urban centers made it easier to acquire goods and services. With products close at hand, people living in these urban areas had more leisure time. Incomes began to increase; the combination of these factors created an increase in the demand for a greater variety of recreation and family activities. By the time the conditions became favorable for a recreation area, the falls had been replaced by Smith Lake. Ironically, the Forest Service finally built a recreation area on Smith Lake in 1988. Clear Creek Recreational Area is located at the site of the drowned falls. Park officials placed a text panel at the site describing the falls and the Falls City Post Office. Every summer, this recreation area fills to capacity with campers, hikers, swimmers, boaters, and skiers. The lake achieved what the falls could not.
Other factors affecting the potential of Falls City included its reputation which had a few blemishes over the years. Isolation may have protected Falls City from crimes committed by outsiders but this same isolation could not protect its citizens from themselves. An article in the Mountain Eagle in 1903 proclaimed "Murder at Clear Creek Falls." B.M. (Mote) O'Rear an ex-sheriff of Walker County, settled at Elk, Alabama. O'Rear became a suspect in the murder of John M. Wilson. O'Rear and Wilson lived next to each other for over a year. Wilson had sold O'Rear the house and property on which he lived. O'Rear learned that there had been a $50.00 mortgage on the property at the time he purchased it from Wilson. This angered O'Rear, so he confronted Wilson with a double-barreled shot gun. An argument between the two men escalated. O'Rear claimed that Wilson made a grab for the gun and in the struggle, it went off, killing Wilson. Although Wilson had been shot five times, O'Rear's story could not be disputed because no one witnessed the incident. Four years later, the case went to trial. O'Rear pleaded guilty to second degree manslaughter. Judge Ray sentenced him to a $500.00 fine and a day in jail. The sentence satisfied Wilson's relatives. O'Rear's lawyers, however, felt confident that their client could have been acquitted of the crime.
Economic and governmental changes effected the development at Falls City as well. The state wide changes from farming to industry sent family members elsewhere to seek employment. Farming could no longer sustain a large family without some outside income. Cotton, a common crop at Falls City, failed after the Civil War. Farm reports indicated that cotton crops did not fare well in this location. The Depression convinced local land owners that the land had become a tax burden. Many sold their acreage to the Forest Service and moved out. One of the earliest economic blows came when the county seat of Winston County moved from Houston to Double Springs in 1883. Houston was located much closer to Falls City. If the county seat had remained there, the fate of the town would likely have been different.
Residents deserted Falls City long before construction of the dam began. The town had exhausted all possibilites for growth by the time the flood waters covered Clear Creek Falls and the remainder of Falls City. Falls City never fulfilled the expectations of its developers.
Mountain Eagle, April 17, 1907
Submitted by Robin Sterling
A New Town Site with all the Natural Advantages Necessary for a Great Railroad and Manufacturing Center. Falls City. Located in the Heart of the Inexhaustible Coal Fields of Winston County, Alabama. The proprietors have laid out, surveyed and had mapped a town site at the famous Clear Creek Falls, in Winston County, Ala., to be known as Falls City. This is no new idea. It has been prophesied by many for a number of years that there would, some day, spring up a flourishing town at what heretofore was called Clear Creek Falls. The prophesies were based on the many wonderful natural advantages surrounding the falls. Such advantages for building a town are rarely ever found. The property consists of four hundred acres of land in one body, covering both sides of the creek for three-quarters of a mile; covered with all the varieties of pine, oak, hickory, poplar, and other hardwoods. It is underlain with two seams of coal—the Jefferson and Black Creek. The same character of iron ore and coal extends for miles, surrounding the property.
Clear Creek takes its name from the many bold mountain springs which flow into it from its source to the falls, making a stream one hundred feet wide. There are two falls. The first, or upper falls forty-three feet, then flows six hundred feet and falls thirty-seven feet, making a total of eighty feet fall, which has been estimated by competent engineers to furnish two thousand horse power at lowest tide upon a basis of a sixteen foot dam at the upper fall. When necessary a much higher dam could be built, even to fifty feet, without injury to adjoining property, thereby affording a much greater horse power. In view of utilizing this water power, negotiations are now pending with eastern capitalists who propose to harness these falls and put in electric machinery to furnish power for all kinds of manufacturing plants and other industries, as well as for mining coal. The almost inexhaustible coal fields of Winston County affords the finest coal in Alabama. We have coal, iron ore, timber and water in abundance surrounding Falls City, which, taken in connection with cheap electric power, is a strong assurance of an immediate success of the town.
With a crossing of two main lines of railroads at Falls city, which seems to be an assured fact in the near future, and with a branch line from the proposed Gadsden & Tuscumbia Electric and Steam R.R., leaving the main line at Moulton, Ala., coming direct to Falls City, makes it doubly certain that we will soon have plenty of railroad facilities with which to transport to the markets of the world the vast wealth of coal, iron ore and timber of Winston County.
Coal Fields. Below we give extracts of the written reports made by Mr. P. Byrne, an expert mining and civil engineer, of Birmingham, Ala., on the water power, coal, iron ore and timber of Winston County, surrounding Falls City. He says as follows: “In compliance with instruction, I went to Winston County Ala., October 1, 1906. I traveled over nearly one hundred miles of said county, the duration of the trip extending over a period of one full week. During that time I made as close and complete an examination of the territory covered as it was possible to do in the limited time. One remarkable feature of the trip was the continuous area of the coal field traversed. In the whole trip recorded I did not at any time loose the coal formation. The whole territory covered carried the Black Creek seam of coal. All the route traversed, except about three miles, carried the Jefferson seam. The coal measures in the territory embraced in this report are known as flat measures, free from faults or upheavals of any description, being uniform in quality and varying but little in thickness, the thickness being from twenty-seven to thirty-six inches. It is the most desirable and best domestic coal we have in the state, the coal demanding highest price of any coal on the market for household use, the demand is greater than the supply at all times. The Black Creek Coal in the territory described if it carries an average thickness of 30 inches will give 3000 tons minable coal to the acre. The Jefferson Coal in the described territory if it carries an average thickness of 27 inches will give 2700 tons of minable coal to the acre. The coal, if estimated in combination (after deducting 10 percent and 20 percent for cut outs in branch bottoms) will give 4,960 tons to the acre; 3,174,400 tons to the square mile; 114,278,400 tons to the township of six square miles. The last named number of tons would load, at thirty tons to the car, 3,809,280 railroad cars of coal. With railroad connections as above described the central Winston county coal fields offer the most profitable coal mining proposition in the state of Alabama.”
Iron Ore. “I found a deposit of iron ore about four miles north of Houston, the said ore extended in a northerly direction, the lead extending into Lawrence county, a distance of about nine miles. The ore is a rich brown hematite, which carries a large percentage of metallic iron, the ore presents itself in several places as large as boulders in outcrops of vast dimensions. I measured some of the boulder outcrops from twenty-five to thirty feet in depth. The above seems to be an extensive and valuable deposit of iron ore. The general appearance and territory would indicate a large amount of workable ore.”
Water Power. “Clear Creek Falls are located in the southeast quarter of the southeast quarter of section four, township twelve, range seven, west. The said falls present the most desirable condition for a cheaply developed water power. Clear Creek, on which the falls are located, being about thirty-five miles in length, being largely fed from springs, insures a uniform and steady summer flow. The falls are divided into two steps about six hundred feet apart, the upper falls having a clear drop of forty-three feet; the lower falls having a drop of thirty-eight feet; both falls and the rapids connecting them giving a total fall of eighty-six feet. In developing the power by placing a sixteen-foot dam on the head of the falls it would give one hundred feet of fall to the power development. My estimates of power are calculated on the above basis. I made a gauging and estimate of the power to be obtained there from in October, the driest portion of the season in the year 1903. I estimated the power equal to 892 horse power for twenty-four hours daily run. The above would give 2,141 horse power for the usual working time of ten hours, provided storage capacity was constructed to catch the run of water, for which the location is well adopted for the construction of necessary works. The power given above is for minimum flow of probably two months in the year. At all other times a much large could be attained. There is a government gauge located above the falls at present. I noted the gauge on the 2nd of this month (October, 1906). Flow reached on said date would give over 2,500 horse power for daily run of twenty-four hours. In the development of mines, saw mills, quarries and other mechanical industries in the vicinity of the falls above described water power is a valuable piece of property.”
Will It Pay You to Invest In Falls City? This question will be asked by all who contemplate an investment of their money, and who, of course desire paying results. It is answered by the price of lots in any or all towns in the state: few, if any, have advantages to compare with Falls city. It is a self-evident fact that the enhancement of well selected town property pays much better than most any other investment. The falls city lots are properly surveyed and staked, and an abstract deed is given with each lot. It is not our desire to encourage fictitious boom, therefore we are offering a limited number of lots at a very low price in advance of railroad connections as an encouragement. As soon as the railroads are built the lots will naturally go very much higher. A little money invested now in lots at Falls City will bring splendid results in the near future. It cannot fail, as Falls City is a town that has come to stay. A proper investigation will guarantee your investment. The views given herewith how falls. The upper on the left and the lower on the right, with a map of Falls City. The avenues running east and west are eight feet wide while the streets running north and south are fifty feet wide. The business lots on the west side are 25x140 feet, with an alley of twenty feet between the lots. The residence lots on east side are 50 x 140 feet with an alley of twenty feet. To promote a more rapid development of the city we have decided to put a limited number of choice business and residence lots on the market at greatly reduced prices for the present. The inside business lots will be $50.00 each, corner business lots at $75.00 each, choice resident lots at $100.00 each. These prices are subject to change without notice. We have reserved one hundred acres on the north end of the property for the location of factories and various industrial plants also grounds for depot and freight yards. Any one desiring a location for mills, factories and other industrial plants will do well to confer with us, as these grounds have been especially reserved for that purpose.
A more picturesque and healthy location cannot be found than Falls City, with its altitude of 1,000 feet above sea level, where the air is pure and invigorating, and with its numerous mountain springs forever flowing with chalybeate and freestone water as clear as crystal. It has been long known as a health resort, and during the summer months, it is a familiar sight to see the woods round about dotted with tents of numerous campers. A better opportunity to invest in property at this growing town will never be had than at the present. For further information apply to D.W. Day, Hartselle, Ala., or J.W. McCarty, Jasper, Ala., owners and proprietors of Falls City, Ala. To reach Falls city from railroad, take livery rig or F.M. Wilson’s hack line at Jasper, Ala. It is only fifteen miles north of Jasper.