Lost canyons, waterfalls and Cahaba lilies

Clear Creek Falls Alabama
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Clear Creek Falls Alabama
Clear Creek Falls -Image courtesy of Alabama Power Company Corporate Archives.

Pop quiz.  How many natural lakes do we have in Alabama? Answer: zero

How can that be?

Look at a map of Alabama. There are lakes all over the place. Guntersville Lake, Smith Lake, Lake Martin, Wheeler Lake, just to name a few.

Alabama Lakes
Map via Alabama Geological Survey

But they are not natural.

“Other than old river meanders that get cut off, all the large lakes in Alabama are actually impounded sections of what use to be free-flowing rivers,” confirmed  Randy Haddock Field Director at the Cahaba River Society.

Starting this week, Bham Now is launching a three-part series of stories on Alabama’s rivers. This edition we’ll examine how Alabama transformed many of our rivers into reservoirs, engulfing  canyons, waterfalls, lilies and memories in the process. Our second story will delve into why many scientists call Alabama’s riverine system “America’s Amazon”. And our third installment will explore threats to our rivers and most importantly profile creative ways people are working together everyday to protect Alabama’s most precious resource.

A River Runs Through it

It’s hard to understand the current state of Alabama’s rivers without recognizing how much we physically changed our rivers last century. For example, some of Alabama’s first dams were built on the Tennessee River. Today, the Tennessee River is deep and wide.

Bridge Alabama
O’Neal Bridge over the Tennessee River connecting Florence and Sheffield Alabama

But as shown in this photo from 1913, before the dams were built, people literally rode horses and wagons across the river.

Tennessee River, Alabama
Horse-drawn wagon fording Muscle Shoals, on the Tennessee River prior to its impoundment, pre-1929. Photograph by Roland Harper, from the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library, The University of Alabama.

In a century long march to bring electricity to every community, control flooding, enhance navigation and provide drinking water, we transformed rivers from narrow, shallow free-flowing almost “creek-like” rivers to large, deep, slow-moving, water-filled reservoirs.

Little River Canyon’s “little brother”
Little River Canyon Alabama
Little River Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the east – photo by Pat Byington

Little River Canyon National Preserve is a natural wonder.  It is one of the deepest canyons east of the Mississippi. The water of Little River is considered by many the cleanest in the state. The river also wasn’t dammed. But did you know Little River Canyon had a “little brother?”

According to Jim Williams PhD, a retired biologist from Department of the Interior and Research Associate at Florida Museum of Natural History,  “Little River Canyon, formed by the Little River ( a tributary of the Coosa River) in Cherokee and DeKalb counties, is a well known feature of the Alabama landscape. Most people don’t realize that Little River Canyon had a little brother in the Sipsey Fork River in Cullman, Walker and Winston Counties. This canyon was not as narrow as the Little River Canyon but non the less spectacular. Today its buried beneath waters of the 21,000 acre Lewis Smith Lake Reservoir. Construction of this reservoir began in the late 1950s and was completed in 1961.”

Here are the striking before and after pictures.

Smith Lake Alabama
Canyon walls before creation of Smith Lake – Image courtesy of Alabama Power Company Corporate Archives.
Smith Lake, Alabama
Aerial photo showing preparation to create Smith Lake – Image courtesy of Alabama Power Company Corporate Archives.
Smith Lake Alabama
Smith Lake, February 1961 – Image courtesy of Alabama Power Company Corporate Archives.
Smith Dam Alabama
Lewis Smith Dam – “Image courtesy of Alabama Power Company Corporate Archives.
Little River Falls also had a twin – Clear Creek Falls
Little River Falls Birmingham Alabama
Little River Falls

Canyons and coves not only disappeared after we built dams and  reservoirs throughout the state, we lost waterfalls. One of the state’s largest waterfalls, Clear Creek Falls was submerged under Smith Lake. Once again, notice how very similar Clear Creek Falls looks like the iconic Little River Falls.

Clear Creek Falls Alabama
Clear Creek Falls -Image courtesy of Alabama Power Company Corporate Archives.

An excerpt from a Birmingham News article written on February 26, 1961 titled Legendary Falls will drown in their own water – documented Clear Creek Fall’s ultimate demise from Alabama’s landscape.

“Clear Creek Falls, located in Winston County’s southeast corner, 15 miles from Jasper, will become part of the impoundment from the new Lewis Smith Dam.  Though the dam is located several miles below the falls, its 300 foot height will put the falls 100 feet under water.”

Here is a youtube color video of Clear Creek Falls.

Yes – there were Cahaba lilies on the Black Warrior River

Further downstream, close to Tuscaloosa, before dams were built along the Black Warrior river, there were large stands of Cahaba lilies. Again from Dr. Williams:

“The aquatic lily Hymenocallis coronaria, locally known as Cahaba Lily, formerly inhabited reaches of upland (above the Fall Line) rivers in the southeastern U.S. Today it is best known for its abundance in the Cahaba River above Centreville but large populations formerly inhabited the Black Warrior River. These large stands were lost when their shoal habitat was inundated by the rising waters behind navigation impoundments beginning in the early 1900s.”

Cahaba Lily Black Warrior River
Cahaba Lilies on the Black Warrior River – Cahaba Lily (Hymenocallis coronaria), in the Black Warrior River prior to its impoundment, Squaw Shoals, Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, 4 June 1913. Photograph by Roland Harper, from the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library, The University of Alabama.
Memories fading – A challenge

The memories of Alabama’s free-flowing rivers are fading fast. Less and fewer people were eyewitnesses to the changes that occurred on Alabama’s rivers over the past century. Ask a teenager or even a co-worker about Alabama’s lakes, and they will likely tell you we have natural lakes in Alabama  We don’t.

If we are going to understand and protect our rivers and save remnants of the past, we need to recognize how we changed them so dramatically.  And from that knowledge, we can work to preserve today’s rivers.

Stay tuned for our next installment on why Alabama’s river systems are known as “America’s Amazon”.

Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.