The Cahaba River is a major tributary of the Alabama River and part of the larger Mobile River Basin. With 140 of its 191 miles undammed, it is the longest free-flowing river in Alabama and is among the most scenic and biologically diverse rivers in the United States. It drains an area of 1,870 square miles and is a source of drinking water for over 1 million residents of the Birmingham District.
The river was known to the natives of the area as Ika Uba (sometimes spelled "Oka Uba"), said to mean "waters above". It first appeared on a map, spalled "Caba", in 1732. During the Creek Indian War forces under the command of Andrew Jackson travelled along the banks of the Cahaba. Major Howell Tatum reported in his "Topographical Notes and Observations on the Alabama River, August 1814" that, "The Cau-hau-ba river, emptying in on the north, is represented by General Johnson, Capt. John Gordon and many other officers who served on the Creek campaigns and were detached to scour that country, as being one of the most beautiful species of small rivers they had ever seen. With these Gentlemen it is the Acadia of America." (quoted in Windham-1968)
Steam-powered riverboats navigated the Cahaba only rarely, reaching as far as Centreville in 1836, 1844, 1845, 1847 and 1849. Two such craft were built especially for the Cahaba's shallow waters, The Duke, constructed in Centreville in 1883, and The Mary D., built in Selma in the same era. The O.K, built in the town of Cahaba, was judged too large to venture upriver. Passage beyond Centreville was limited by rough and shallow water, and also by construction of a Tennessee & Alabama Central Railroad bridge in 1849.
Between 1880 and 1893 the United States Congress appropriated $45,000 in unsuccessful efforts to create a navigable channel in the river. Another federally-funded feasibility study was commissioned in 1909, but concluded that the Cahaba was "unworthy of further improvement."
The waters of the Cahaba are home to more than 131 species of freshwater fish (18 of which have been found in no other river system), 40 species of mussels, and 35 species of snails. Sixty-nine of these animal species are endangered. Among the countless plant species that thrive in and around the Cahaba is the Cahaba lily.
The Cahaba flows through heavily populated areas in the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Statistical Area. In addition to serving as a source of drinking water, the river is a popular canoeing destination. Pressure to develop the land around the Cahaba presents a growing threat to the river's health.
A series of improvements in the last decade have shown some signs of restoring the river's health. The Marvel slab, built for coal trucks needing to cross the stream just below the inlet of Shades Creek, was removed in 2004. The Gold-Kist poultry processing plant near Trussville closed, and Jefferson County built a new Trussville Wastewater Treatment Plant on Green Drive in 1998 as part of a comprehensive effort to comply with a federal consent decree for violations of the Clean Water Act.
- Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge
- Cahaba River Park
- Cahaba River Society
- List of Cahaba River access locations
- Windham, Kathryn Tucker (1968) "Cahaba" in Rivers of Alabama. Huntsville: The Strode Publishers, pp. 123-134
- "Cahaba River" (February 21, 2006) Wikipedia - accessed March 21, 2006
- Bouma, Katherine (November 19, 2006) "Imperiled fish reappear up Shades Creek." Birmingham News
- Nijhuis, Michelle (August 2009) "The Cahaba: A River of Riches" Smithsonian magazine.
- Pillion, Dennis (June 5, 2018) "A look into the Cahaba River and what it will take to conserve it." The Birmingham News
- The Cahaba River Society
- Upper Cahaba Watershed Study
- Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge at the US Fish & Wildlife Service
- Cahaba River at Birmingham Water Works Board
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