About Historic Decatur, Alabama
In 1820 the area was known as “Rhodes Ferry Landing,” named for Dr. Henry W. Rhodes, an early landowner who operated a ferry that crossed the Tennessee River at the present-day location of Rhodes Ferry Park.
The town of Decatur was founded in 1823 by order of the U.S. Congress and President James Monroe in honor of the renowned U.S. naval officer Commodore Stephen Decatur (1779-1820).
Commodore Decatur, who won a sword from Congress and a captaincy when he was only 25, was one of the most daring officers in the United States Navy during its early years. He is remembered for his timeless toast, “Our country; may she always be right; but our country, right or wrong.”
Today the city of Decatur resides in Morgan County, which was named for Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, one of America’s greatest generals in the War of Independence. General Morgan delivered a decisive victory at the Battle of Cowpens, which was a turning point in retaking South Carolina from the British.
Historical Timeline of Decatur
- 1818 Feb. 6: Cotaco County (later Morgan) established by Alabama Territorial Legislature. Territorial census found 2,253 people in the county.
- 1819 Dec. 14: Alabama admitted to the Union as a state.
- 1820 Dr. Henry Rhodes established a ferry at the site of Decatur. President James Monroe ordered that a town be established at Rhodes Ferry. The town is located on the last navigable part of the Tennessee River before the Muscle Shoals. Travelers on the river got out here and traveled by land to Tuscumbia, where they could once again travel on the river.
Tradition holds that the President expressed wishes that the town be named after U.S. naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur, who had died after a duel in March 1820 [Note: Commodore Decatur never visited Alabama].
June: Decatur Land Company organized.
- 1821 June: County’s name changed from Cotaco to Morgan in honor of General Daniel Morgan, the hero of the Battle of Cowpens in the Revolutionary War.
July: Members of the Decatur Land Company (Dr. Henry Rhodes, Jesse Winston Garth, McKinney Holderness, Isaac Lane, and George Peck) receive patents for the land on which they would build the town of Decatur.
- 1833 A branch of the State Bank of Alabama is built at Decatur.
The first railroad west of the Alleghenies, the Tuscumbia, Courtland, and Decatur, is completed. Both the bank and the railroad were failures within a few years, and the city entered a state of decline.
- 1855 The Memphis and Charleston Railroad constructs a railroad bridge across the Tennessee River at Decatur.
- 1861 At Alabama’s secession convention, Morgan County representatives vote to stay in the Union
- 1862 Decatur occupied by Union forces. The railroad bridge is burned. In August they abandon the town.
- 1864 Union forces retake the town, and demolish most of it. In October, Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood marches past with 40,000 men, but does take the town.
- 1865 Civil War ends.
- 1872 Louisville and Nashville railroad completes track through Decatur. When this is combined with the repaired Memphis and Charleston track and the Tennessee River, Decatur becomes an important transportation hub.
- 1878 First yellow fever epidemic hits town, resulting in 58 confirmed deaths.
- 1887 The Decatur Land Improvement and Furnace Company lays out and constructs the town of New Decatur, later called Albany. Several important industries locate in the “twin cities.”
- 1888 Second yellow fever epidemic. Along with 37 confirmed deaths, the town’s growth is stunted for years to come.
- 1927 Towns of Decatur and Albany are merged.
- 1928 Keller Memorial Bridge opens, and the important “Bee Line Highway” (Now U.S. 31) is completed through Decatur, running from Chicago to Florida.
- 1933 Wheeler Dam is completed by the Tennessee Valley Authority, making the Muscle Shoals navigable and bringing cheap hydroelectric power and flood control to the area.