Capitals of Alabama


photo of the Capitol in Montgomery


As a separate territory and state since 1817, Alabama has had five capitals. Saint Stephens, in southwest Alabama, was designated in the Congressional act creating the territory as the temporary seat of government. There, two sessions of the territorial legislature met. In accordance with the enabling act for statehood, the first Constitutional Convention assembled in the north Alabama town of Huntsville in 1819, where the first session of the General Assembly was held in the same year.


sketch of Capitol building in Cahaba
The first State Capitol in Cahaba


The territorial legislature, however, had chosen Cahaba (also spelled Cahawba), at the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers, as the site for the capital of the state, so the second session of the legislature met there in 1820. Cahaba also was designated as the temporary seat of government in the Constitution, which expressly gave the 1825-26 legislature the power to decide upon a permanent site. That session of the General Assembly took the opportunity to select Tuscaloosa for the new capital, deserting the oft-flooded and unhealthy Cahaba site.


Tuscaloosa was a thriving community located on the shoals of the Black Warrior River and had been a strong candidate for the capital site when Cahaba had been chosen for the honor in 1819. Serving as the home for the government beginning in 1826, however, it was increasingly inconvenient as a seat of government for the rapidly growing state. Alabama's population gains concentrated in the state's more eastern counties as Indian lands there opened to white settlement, prompting a clamor for a more centrally located capital.


sketch of the Capitol building in Tuscaloosa
The State House in Tuscaloosa, Al


An amendment approved by the voters of Alabama struck out the section of the Constitution designating the 1825-26 selection as the "permanent" site for the capital, freeing the legislature in 1846 to choose another site from among a number of competing river towns. Montgomery, on the Alabama River, won the ensuing 16-ballot contest in the General Assembly.


Andrew Dexter, one of the founders of the town, had held on to a prime piece of property in long anticipation of the capital's eventual move to Montgomery. Dubbed "Goat Hill" for its use as pasturage, the site retained that affectionate appellation despite attempts to dignify the spot with names like "Lafayette Hill" (after the 1825 visit of the Marquis de Lafayette) and "Capitol Hill" (after the 1847 construction of the Capitol).


In selecting Montgomery the legislature expressly provided that the state should be put to no expense in securing lands or in erecting a capitol building. Thus, the citizens of the town immediately organized to secure the "Goat Hill" site and begin erecting a building. Bonds for $75,000 were issued by the municipality which were taken up by local real estate dealers and investors. The Greek Revival plan of the new capitol was drawn up by Stephen D. Button; the contractors were Bird F. Robinson and R. N. R. Bardwell. The completed building was presented to the state on December 6, 1847, at the beginning of the legislature's first-ever biennial session.


On December 14, 1849, near the beginning of the General Assembly's second session in Montgomery, the Capitol was destroyed by fire. Moving to temporary quarters to continue deliberations, the legislature in February of 1850 appropriated $60,000 with which the central section of the present building was erected upon the foundations of the burned original. A new architect, Barachias Holt, designed the new structure.


During the 1870-72 period several improvements were made to increase the convenience and appearance of the Capitol's lower floor, but no increase in its capacity was made from its re-erection in 1851 until 1885. In February of the latter year, the legislature appropriated $25,000 for a "needed enlargement," which became an east wing.


Another $150,000 was appropriated in 1903 to purchase the privately owned property making up the south end of the capitol square, where a south wing was erected in 1905-06. A north wing followed in 1911 when an additional $100,000 came from the legislature. An addition to the east wing was completed in 1992 as part of a major restoration and refurbishing project for the entire structure.


photo of the Capitol in Montgomery
The Current State Capitol in Montgomery



Owen, Thomas McAdory. History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, the S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, (1921).