Opening walking tour held SaturdayPublished 4:00am Thursday, April 11, 2013
Attendees at Saturday morning’s heritage walking tour were treated to information about Wetumpka’s antebellum churches and West Side businesses and residences.
In the first of four tours this year, local historian Joe Allen Turner shared a few of the stories about the city’s history that he has gleaned through the years.
After a brief synopsis of the area’s early days, Turner moved on to the day’s principal topic.
“We have three antebellum churches still in existence – First Baptist, First Methodist and First Presbyterian,” he told his listeners.
“But there was a fourth one – an Episcopal church. The congregation eventually dwindled away and the building fell into disrepair and was torn down.”
Turner said no one is quite certain where the church stood.
“I’ve heard it was somewhere on the river bank,” he said.
Turner explained that the Methodist Church was organized in 1819, the Baptist Church in 1821 and the Presbyterian Church in 1836.
He shared tidbits about each site.
Turner noted that Tallulah Bankhead’s grandparents were married in the Presbyterian Church and that Bankhead’s sister lived in the city for a time.
First Baptist, Turner said, was initially located on the east side of the river but moved to its present vicinity after the original building burned.
The current property was leased in 1845.
The bricks of the First Methodist Church were made by hand, he said.
Turner also talked about the businesses that once thrived on the west bank of the Coosa River.
“The West Side had a theater complete with a stage, velvet curtains and scenery,” he said. “In 1833, Mr. Barnum came through with his Siamese twins on exhibit.”
There were two hotels on the city’s west side, in addition to the large three-story hotel at the Harrogate Springs resort, he explained.
“There were so many hotels because Wetumpka was at the head of navigation going all the way to Mobile and on to New Orleans,” said Turner.
“People would bring merchandise and supplies from further north to be shipped south, and goods from New Orleans and Mobile would come here to be sent back north.
“It was really a thriving busy place, and got off to a fast start. But when the steamship business declined because of the railroad, it sort of fizzled out.”
Turner said his lifelong interest in the city’s past began when he was a child. As he listened to his grandparents and their contemporaries talk about their own bygone days, he said he was struck by the realization that once his elders were gone much of the area’s history would be lost beyond recall.
“That’s why everyone wants you to write a book,” teased Jean Slaughter, one of the attendees.
“You need to sit down every night and write notes or record stories.”
At the end of the tour, attendees regrouped at the Elmore County Museum for refreshments.
The walking tours will continue for the next three Saturdays.
Tours begin at 10 a.m. each date and attendees should meet at the museum.
Wetumpka has hosted heritage walking tours each year since 2003 as part of a statewide program spearheaded by the Alabama Tourism Department.
This is the 11th year for the tours.
There is no charge to participate. Rain will cancel a tour.