Metal detector stories: Confederate Gold in Alabama
By David Edelen
I would like to share with y'all a story an old man told me around the mid 1980s. I kept this more or less to myself for years, thinking I would some day salvage this old boat I found, but now I know I will never have the means to explore or salvage what I am fixin' to tell y'all about.
I grew up in Prattville, Alabama. I am sure some of your readers are from that area and are familiar with the Prattville, Montgomery area and of course, the Alabama River. One time in Montgomery, in the late '80s, or early '90s, I was finishing some sheetrock in a small business, in sort of a row of businesses in the same long building. It was on Madison Avenue, a block or two over from downtown Montgomery, Alabama, and right next door to the office I was working in was a small "Typewriter Repair" shop. In fact the little row of businesses was right next door to that big car wash on Madison Avenue, that has been there for ages. If this is published, and any Montgomery folks read it, if they are old enough, they might remember the typewriter repair place I am talking about.
Anyway, I took a break one day and walked into the little typewriter repair business next to it. It was run by an old man in his late 80s. I nearly fainted when I looked around. Besides his typewriter repair stuff, and a big pile of typewriters, parts, etc., he had a nice collection of Civil War stuff. Laid out on tables, totally uncovered, were all sorts of Civil War bullets, buttons and buckles, including rare "A.V.C." buckles and buttons, etc., etc.!! I told him that he needed to put it up or else some unscrupulous rascal would pocket some of it!
We got to talking, and he told me a strange tale. He said that when he was a little boy, an old man about 80 years old told him that during the Civil War he had been a riverboat captain, operating cotton steam-barges, boats, etc. He said when Yankee Gen. James H. Wilson took and burned Selma in 1865, and it became known that he was heading towards Montgomery, the local leaders, military and civilian alike, devised a plan to keep the Yankees from stealing Montgomery blind. After dumping all sorts of munitions, military equipment, ammo, ordnance, etc., etc., into the river, they got two cotton steam-boats or barges, and loaded everything of value in Montgomery on them. All the money, gold, silver, jewelry, and even silverware and antiques, etc., and all the money left in the State Treasury, in Montgomery, were loaded on these barges/boats. The Captains of these two boats had orders for one to go upstream and the other to go downstream, and at a strategic and easy
to remember location, to hide them, by running aground and sinking them or what ever. The plan being to go back and salvage the stuff after the Yankees were gone, or the war was over, or whatever.
The old man that told this story to the young fella had been one of these captains. He said that the other boat and its captain was never heard from again (the rascal probably took off with it). But he said he faithfully followed orders, scuttling his boat in fairly shallow water, off of a point of land at the mouth of a creek. Then he made his way back to Montgomery or where ever. Later, after the war, he could never find the spot where he had scuttled his boat again. I can't remember if he said he was the one that went upstream or down stream.
But anyway, when I was growing up in Prattville (I am 45 now), the Alabama River was a lot lower than it is now. That was back before all the locks and dams all up and down the river raised its levels about 10 or twenty feet, if not more. Back then it was lower and narrower, and real fast and deadly, very deadly, with whirlpools popping up all over the place. It is still deadly if you don't watch it. But back then it would also get very, very low in times of draught. But anyway, when I was a teenager, we all used to ride our bicycles down to the river and hunt Indian arrow-heads and pottery in the fields next to the river, or play in the river (real close to the shore though, I can assure you!).
One time during one of these droughts we rode our bikes down there, and got on the beach and walked way down the river, exploring. The river was so low, all sorts of large areas of gravelly beach area was exposed, which was usually under several feet of water. Anyway, we walked on down to where, if I am not mistaken (its been about 30 years), what is now "Cooter's Pond" empties into the river. Back then it was just a big creek or slew. Nowadays "Cooter's Pond" is like a lake or something.
Anyway, lying on the beach, looking as if it had just been run up on the beach on one of the "corners" of where Cooter's Pond empties, was some sort of big boat. It lay on the corner of the entrance to the creek/slew closest to the Highway 31 bridge. About twenty or twenty-five feet of the forward part of the boat was exposed. It seemed to be about 10 or 15 feet wide, with a pointed bow. It was sturdy as can be, and we walked all over it. The gunwales, bulwarks, deck walls or whatever you call them seemed to be made of wood almost as thick as railroad ties and about twelve inches or more wide, and maybe a couple of feet high. The deck seemed to be made of planks about twelve inches or so wide also About halfway between the bow and the point where the deck disappeared under the water, was a big hatch. Probably a cargo hatch, which was full of sand and gravel right up to the brim of it. It seemed to be about four feet or more square. And about thirty or forty feet out in the water from where the deck disappeared under the water was a smoke stack sticking up, which appeared to be made out of some thick, heavy gauge metal. It was only poking up about two or three feet above the water, and the top edge of it appeared to be bent, ground or chipped up.
Probably where over the years different boats and things have hit it, or drug over it. To my dying day I will wonder what that old boat was, and what might lie in her hold!!?? More than that, I will always wonder if it was one of the Montgomery treasury boats!!?? But I will probably never know. A guy I knew in my home town that was a diver, Horace Meeks, was very interested in it and planned on diving on it, but he died of a heart attack a few years ago. Plus there is a chance it is not there now. For years now, they have been dredging the Alabama River for gravel, all up and down it. Whenever I have seen that dredging boat and barge, I have always sort of said a little prayer for it not to hit my old boat I found. I reckon that is silly, but that was a big adventure for us kids, and that old boat, if it is still there, is special to me to this day.
Well, that is about it. I just thought I would share that story with the world. Perhaps someone will think it worth checking out. Of course it might not even be from the Civil War era! One of the few people I have ever told about it was an old man I met in one of the marinas on the river. He seemed to know about it and to think it was a cotton barge that sunk back around the 1920s or '30s. The boat did not seemed to be damaged as far as we could tell. Of course the sand and gravel was up high against the sides too, where we could not see the whole of the bottom. Well, I reckon I had better go for now. I hope y'all found that story interesting. I recently found out where you can get river charts showing old wrecks, etc, around here. And I think I am going to get me one and try to find out a little more.