The banks and uplands of the Cahaba have been inhabited for at least 10,000 years. The earliest known people in Alabama were hunters that entered during the last Ice Age.
In the later part of the 18th century, the Cahaba River served as the Choctaw’s eastern border with the Creeks.
The year 1540 signifies the end of prehistoric eras in the state as it marks the arrival of Hernando DeSoto, Alabama’s first European explorer. Following DeSoto’s visit no recorded history exists for another two centuries when French colonists arrived. The Cahaba was considered the boundary line between the two dominant tribes, the Choctaws (meaning red) and the Creeks. The Creeks were not a tribe but a confederacy of smaller groups, called Creeks by English settlers because they built their villages along creeks. The Creeks lost their lands to the states and Andrew Jackson at the treaty of 1814.
Perhaps the Cahaba’s earliest environmental degradation by man arose as an unexpected result of the fur trade and an overtrapping of beavers. As the numerous small beaver dams along tributaries to the Cahaba were left abandoned, flood waters, once slowed by these obstructions, now ran turbulently destabilizing stream banks and increasing soil erosion.
There is no record of European settlements in the basin until after the Creek Indian war of 1813-1814. All counties of the Cahaba Corridor were formed before the admission of the State into the Union in 1819.
The state’s first capital was built at the mouth of the River and given the name Cahawba in 1820. Alabama’s first governor William Wyatt Bibb chose the site because of its riverine beauty, springs of good water, prospect of health, ability to support navigation, and its access to an extensive and fertile backcountry. Bibb had already determined that rivers were central to the future of the state and our greatest natural asset when he designed our state seal, a representation of the great rivers within our borders. (Keith and Jackson)
Both the Warrior and Cahaba River Basins contain vast deposits of coal. The Cahaba Coal Field stretches in a narrow band through the town of Piper.
During the last two years of the Civil War, Alabama iron furnaces produced more iron than all other Southern states combined, earning Alabama the name “Arsenal of the Confederacy.” Ore production depended on the raw materials of ore beds, water power, and timber for charcoal. The Cahaba basin had all three, not to mention a high quality 360 square mile coal field (at Piper). During the war, six furnaces were built in the Cahaba Basin at Tannehill (1859), Brierfield (1861), Little Cahaba/Brighthope (1863), Irondale (1863) and Oxmoor (1863).
The Cahaba, to the surprise of many, did experience some steamboat travel, with steamers arriving as far upstream as Centreville, but such trips were rare and treacherous.
If it weren’t for the growth of commerce by rail after the Civil War, chances are that the Cahaba would have been dammed up for navigation all the way to the active furnaces of Birmingham.
Another man-induced impact to the river began with the washing of coal dust from graded coal, turning the river and its tributaries black, polluting it with toxic heavy metals, and lowering the pH. Black seems of coal dust can still be seen in sandbars today.
The city of Birmingham first tapped the Cahaba as its primary source of drinking water with the construction of a small diversion dam in 1890. The city’s original water supply, Village Creek had rapidly been fouled with waste.
Lake Purdy on the Little Cahaba was raised in 1911. When waters of the Cahaba were first utilized, all that was needed to make the water perfectly drinkable was a short period of settling.