Six Alabama cities – Eufaula, Decatur, Alexander City, Spanish Fort, Jasper and Selma – will examine water as an environmental necessity and a key element of history, culture and everyday life as they host Water/Ways, a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program.
The Alabama tour, scheduled from June 2017 to April 2018, is made possible through a partnership project of the Smithsonian and Alabama Humanities Foundation, now in its 20th year of presenting these exhibits in communities throughout the state.
Water/Ways will serve as a community meeting place to convene conversations about water’s impact on American culture with host sites using the national water story in the Smithsonian exhibition as jumping-off point to tell their local water stories: the history; the many diverse cultural links; the land changes over time; the current stresses on water – and most importantly, the future story they are part of creating.
They will develop complementary exhibits, host public programs and facilitate educational initiatives to raise people’s understanding about what water means culturally, socially and spiritually in their own community.
Water/Ways is part of the Smithsonian’s Think Water Initiative to raise awareness of water as a critical resource for life through exhibitions, educational resources and public programs. The public can participate in the conversation on social media at #thinkwater.
On June 24, Water/Ways will kick off in Eufaula, a city whose historic prosperity was due, in large part, to its location on the Chattahoochee River. Steamboats exchanged necessary goods for cotton destined for ports around the world.
Modern Eufaula’s major industries – manufacturing, recreation, and tourism – all center on water and will be featured in the local exhibitions. Local fishing legend Tom Mann, inventor of the “jelly worm,” known to virtually every angler, helped make Lake Eufaula the “Bass Capital of the World.”
Eufaula plays witness to the impending global crises of freshwater scarcity, a major topic of Water/Ways, in the famous water sharing conflict among Alabama, Georgia, and Florida over flows in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin. “It is a pleasure to be able to educate the public and students in surrounding areas as well as locals regarding our historic relationship with the waterways of our area,” said Ann Sparks, executive director of Main Street Eufaula.
Water is central to Decatur’s history as well. Decatur was settled on the banks of the Tennessee River, which has affected the lives of its residents in many ways, both positively and negatively.
Early in Decatur history, the river was the main source of transportation. Before the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) built dams to regulate its flow, the river routinely flooded large areas, and after the dams were constructed, the river provided electric power to the whole region.
Navigation through the dam and lock systems along the Tennessee and access to the Gulf of Mexico via the Tombigbee Waterway have directly contributed to Decatur’s flourishing industrial economy, which features manufacturing facilities for 12 Fortune 500 Companies.
But along with industrial growth have come water quality problems downriver. “I think this exhibit will resonate with all of the people who come to experience it,” according to Kathryn Silvestri, exhibit coordinator, Carnegie Visual Arts Center.
Originally a center of the state’s textile industry, Alexander City is now best known for Lake Martin, a major recreation, vacation and fishing destination. The lake is a reservoir, formed by the construction of Martin Dam on the Tallapoosa River to generate power for Alabama Power Co. Upon completion of the dam in 1926, it was the largest manmade body of water in the world.
“Water continues to be the greatest natural and economic resource in the Lake Martin area. We are excited to be able to explore the historical, natural, spiritual and economic impact of water on our area and the world as a whole though Water/Ways and the companion exhibits,” said Don McClellan, executive director, Lake Martin Area Economic Development Alliance.
The Five Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort will be the fourth stop on the Water/Ways tour. Situated on Battleship Parkway at the confluence of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and Mobile Bay, the center’s focus is the delta, a 250,000+ acre wetland ecosystem that is the United State’s second largest and one of Alabama’s wildest places.
Referred to as “America’s Amazon,” approximately 140,000 acres of the delta are now in public ownership. Five Rivers is a major educational resource for learning about the biological richness, natural history, culture and economy of coastal Alabama and its relationship with water.
Five Rivers is also a center for education about issues of water quality, which the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 brought to the forefront of national conversation, where it remains today.
Coastal Alabama’s history, culture and future are forever tied to the water, from the Mississippian-era Native Americans, whose settlements and mounds dot the upper Delta, through Colonial-era Mobile and the port that carried King Cotton to the world, and on to the villages of Bon Secour, Bayou La Batre and Coden. Water was central to Civil War forts at the mouth of Mobile Bay and Historic Blakeley, where the last battle of the Civil War was fought, to shipbuilding in World War II and the emergence of containerized shipping in the 1950s.
In January 2018, Water/Ways will move to Jasper where the history and culture of another distinct region of the state is yet again tied directly to the water. Early European settlers came to Chief Town or Black Warrior Town on the banks of the Mullberry Fork of the Black Warrior River near the current town of Sipsey. There, they were greeted by Native Americans from many tribes as this trading town was neutral territory.
Coal fields started on the Warrior River when travelers noticed that their fire ring rocks ignited, thus sparking the coal mining boom in the region. Due to the abundance of water and local coal in 1916, Alabama Power Co. began construction of the Gorgas Steam Plant, still in operation today. The planned community that was built to support the plant laid the pattern for many of the towns still in existence throughout the nation.
In the mid-1960s, Alabama Power built a dam at the Sipsey Fork tributary on the Warrior River to create Lewis Smith Lake, ushering in an era of hydroelectric generation, active lake recreation and another of the state’s nationally famous bass fishing destinations. “We are honored to be chosen a host site for the Smithsonian WaterWays Exhibit,” said Barbara Brown Medders, coordinator of the Bankhead House & Heritage Center, which will co-host Water/Ways along with the Walker County Arts Alliance.
“Our goal is to bring awareness to our local waterways – Lewis Smith Lake, Warrior River, Blackwater Creek and Walker County Lake, just to name a few – and the many scenic, recreational, historic and cultural features they possess.”
Water/Ways will conclude its Alabama tour in Selma. Local project director and Executive Director of ArtsRevive CDC Martha Beasley Lockett noted, “The Alabama River has been a critical economic driver for the Selma area since it was founded in the 1700s as Ecor Bienville. It was the main artery for shipping Black Belt cotton to Mobile for trade, and after the railroads connected Anniston and Selma, it became the main trade gateway to get goods from north Alabama to the Gulf. As children, we dove in the river and recovered shot cannon balls and other artifacts from that time.”
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, crossing the Alabama, has become an internationally-recognized symbol of the momentous changes that took place during the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s and continues as an icon in the fight for human rights in America and around the world.
Among a host of programming still in development, ArtsRevive will be partnering with Cahawba Archeological Park, looking at the influence of the Alabama/Cahaba Rivers in the birth of Alabama’s first permanent state capital at Cahawba and its eventual destruction.
Selma hosts also plan programming exploring social justice issues around water and its place in our future. Uniontown is about 30 minutes’ drive from Selma, deep in the Black Belt. A mostly African American dot in the road, it has abject poverty and negligible employment opportunities.
“It became the site of the dump from the coal ash disaster in Tennessee. The environmental impact on the water and air quality there is significant. Pair that with the claim by the chairman of Nestle that access to water is not a human right and that a corporation has the right to buy up this finite resource and then sell it back in plastic bottles. Science, philosophy, religion, history, sociology – all find a place in that conversation,” Lockett said.
“We are thrilled to be welcoming the Smithsonian Water Exhibit to our area,” added Sheryl Smedley, executive director of the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce. “Water has been critical to our history, our development and our culture since our earliest days. This high caliber exhibit will draw visitors from near and far. We look forward to our experience.”
The Water/Ways tour is an appropriate precursor to the statewide celebrations of Alabama’s Bicentennial. Few topics are so intrinsically linked to Alabama’s past, present and future.
From Mobile Bay to the Tennessee River Valley, few states are as replete with water resources as Alabama. In creating the original “Great Seal of the State of Alabama,” Governor William Wyatt Bibb included a map showing the state’s major rivers. The modern-day great seal of the state retains Bibb’s river map.
While Alabama’s first governor could not have known the full extent of the state’s water resources, his design could not be more appropriate. Three distinct river drainage basins – the Tennessee in the north, the Mobile in the central and west, and the Escatawpa and Chattahoochee in the east – define the state along with the highlands that separate them.
An estimated 132,000 miles of river and stream channels, represent the state’s 17 major river systems and discharge about 33.5 trillion gallons of water annually. At 1,438 miles, Alabama leads the nation in navigable channels. Alabama’s lakes, ponds, and reservoirs make up 563,000 acres, and the state’s underground water supply is estimated at 553 trillion gallons, more than 16 times the amount of surface water.
In every way, water is foundational to Alabama’s history, people and cultures.
Destinations and Dates
Eufaula, James. S. Clark Center, June 24 to August 5
Decatur, Carnegie Visual Arts Center, August 12 to September 23
Alexander City, Main Street Alexander City, September 30 to November 11
Spanish Fort, Five Rivers Delta Resource Center, November 18 to January 6
Jasper, Bankhead House and Heritage Center, January 13 to February 24
Selma, ArtsRevive, March 4 to April 8