Folklore, myths, tall tales...urban legends. Every small town in America has at least one or two and the Shoals area of North Alabama is no different. I heard lots of these legends growing up in Florence. From tales of giant catfish lurking in the depths of Wilson Lake to eerie "ghost lights" spotted in the Cloverdale area to a haunted Ghost Bridge, many of the same legends persist to this day. Are they true or just a myth? Read along to find out. Here is my list of the top 10 urban legends of the Shoals.
1. The U.S. Post Office building in downtown Florence, Alabama, was actually intended for Florence, S.C. but was built here by mistake.
This is a story I've heard my entire life and many people swear it's true. To this day, I often see mentions in local history groups on social media repeating this claim of a "bureaucratic mixup" that gave us the beautiful building we have in downtown Florence. Completed in 1913, the historic 3 story Neo-classical building is a sight to see with it's Alabama marble grand staircases, Georgia marble tiles, elaborate carved oak trim, stunning columns and wrought iron details. How could Florence, Alabama get such a beautiful structure? It had to be a mix up, right? Actually, this is one persistent urban legend that is absolutely FALSE. Not only was the building intended for our own Florence, Alabama, it was carefully planned and executed - with no other city in mind. Years of planning went into the building as you can see in the article below from the local paper, The Florence Herald, dated August 24, 1906. So, how did Florence get such a grand building known in it's day as one of the finest in the south? Federal money and connections. You see, the building was not only built to house the main branch of our local US Postal Service, it was also built as a Federal Court House - for which it serves to this day. The closest federal court houses were in Huntsville and Birmingham, Alabama - quite a distance in the late 1800's to early 1900's. The local leaders along with our representatives in Washington D.C. negotiated to have it built and hired architect James K. Taylor (cousin of local notable Hiram Kennedy-Douglass) to design the building. It was built on the location of the former Florence Synodical College for Women and took 2 years to finish. In the late 1990s, it was renamed the John R. McKinley Federal Building to honor McKinley (1780-1852) who was one of the founding fathers of Florence, a US Senator for Alabama, an
d Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
2. Cloverdale spook lights
You've probably heard of "spook lights" or "ghost lights" seen in various locations around the globe. The Brown Mountain lights of North Carolina, the Texas Marfa lights, and the Min Min lights of Australia, for example, have been featured in many paranormal television series and been a topic of news articles, books and local debate for decades. They are eerie glowing moving orbs of light that seem to appear randomly at certain locations with no known source. Known as ghost lights, spook lights, will-o-the-wisp, and other forboding names, these sightings, at least in the USA, often go back centuries to Native American lore. There are explanations ranging from the scientific to the otherworldly. Did you know that we have our very own version of these mysterious lights in North Alabama? In a small unincorporated area about 11 miles northwest of Florence, the "Spooklights of Cloverdale" have been proported to appear since at least the early 1970s. Is this true? Are the spooklights real? It looks like they are VERY real - but what they are exactly remains a mystery. Wyatt Cox of North Carolina, a field researcher, author, and native of Cloverdale has been studying various "spook lights" all over the US for years including the ones seen at Cloverdale. It was there that he had his first sighting in 1977 and has had hundreds since that time as he has returned over the years to study them. In fact, he's not alone. Researchers and the curious have come from all over the world to try to get a glimpse of these strange orange-yellowish glowing balls of light and figure out exactly what they are. In his journey, Cox has written a book: Spooklights: The Amazing Cloverdale Alabama Spooklight Mystery. He also made a fantastic video documenting one of his latest visits and gives his best explanation of what he believes causes the spooklights. Watch it here. This is not to be confused with the UFO sightings of the 70s in Lexington which I also cover in the list below - although they may be related as Cox states in his video.
3. Several workers were buried alive in concrete during the construction of Wilson Dam.
This urban legend which was told as a ghost story terrified me the first time I heard it as a kid. I was raised not far from Wilson Dam. You could hear the spillways when they were open from my parents back porch! Would I also be able to hear the ghosts of these men who were buried alive scratching and clawing and still trying to find their way out? I can certainly tell you that I never stayed out to play after dark upon hearing this tale! Although this urban legend persists to this day, there seems to be no evidence that it ever happened at Wilson Dam. Respectfully, there were 57 men who lost their lives during construction of the dam - and I don't make light of that. Part of Roosevelt's New Deal, the building of Wilson Dam was a huge undertaking which proved tragic to many familes. However, the deaths that did occur are well documented. Bob Stansell reasearched and compiled a list of the casualties and their causes in the February 2001 Pier Post Magazine which I will include below. There was also an article by Dennis Sherer on June 19, 2010 in the local Times Daily newspaper where local Wilson Dam historian John P. Blackwell said that he had never found any evidence that workers were buried in the concrete of the dam (read it here). This one, it looks like, is just a legend and nothing more.
4. There are catfish as big as volkswagens lurking in Wilson Lake near the dam.
This seems to be a persistent urban legend that also centers around Wilson Dam. The version that I have always heard goes something like this: a diver was sent down to inspect the base of Wilson Dam. Upon reaching the bottom of the lake, the diver was shocked and terrified to spot a catfish swimming by that was big as a Volkswagon and could probably swallow a man whole! Sounds legit, right? I mean, who really knows what lurks in those dark deep waters - and, after all, catfish are bottom feeders. It looks like this particular legend is not native to the Shoals. There are tall tales all over the south of divers and fishermen seeing such giant catfish. But we all know that "fish tales" grow to great exaggeration and although this legend can't be disproved 100%, there's just no evidence that it's true, either, so we really dont know. In season 4 episode 1 of River Monsters, host Zeb Hogan tackles this legend himself. Watch it for free here.
5. Lexington, Alabama was frequented by large numbers of UFOs in the 1970s.
"I seen it with my own two eyes," says the proverbial country fellow on a local newscast. That's what we've come to expect with such sightings of UFOs which often led to ridicule and laughter directed at the witness. Lately, however, public opinion has changed with the Pentagon releasing bonafide UFO footage snd admitting that there are "things" flying around in our skies that we absolutely cannot identify. But you didn't have to release government footage of a UFO to convince Shoals residents who witnessed the UFOs over Lexington that they are real. Hundreds of local people saw these objects that frequented the Lexington area in the early 1970s - most centered around the Lexington dump. The Times Daily featured several stories about the sightings (read one here from 1973) and apparently people from all over the Shoals drove out to Lexington to park their cars, get out and watch the objects which made regular visits around dusk. There was even one resident who told the Times Daily that the object landed near his house in a pasture (see the article here). Whatever it was - something unidentified and flying was seen very often over Lexington. This urban legend is true.
6. There was an Olympic sized swimming pool on the roof of Coffee High School.
Okay, I'll admit that this one is more of a prank than urban legend. For decades, this myth was told to incoming freshmen by the upperclassmen at Coffee High - and I felt it was worth a mention because a whole lot of people fell for it (including myself in a more naive and younger state). As the legend went: the only way to access the pool on the roof was by special code via the elevator - which was off limits to students without a disability. It was the perfect urban legend, actually - with no way to prove it wasn't true - that is, until Google Earth appeared. You see, several years ago when my son began classes in the former Coffee High School which had then been converted to Florence Junior High for 7th and 8th grades, I thought I would have a little fun the first day of school and perpetuate the legend as my son was exiting the car that morning. "Really??!!!" he exclaimed and I could tell he would rush to tell his buddies that day and create a whole new generation of urban legend fodder. To my dismay, however, when I picked him up that afternoon, the first words out of his mouth: "Mom, you lied. There's no pool on the roof." "How do you know?" I questioned. "You don't have the elevator code to go up and find out." "No, mom. I looked it up on Google Earth and there's no pool." So much for my small hopes and dreams to perpetuate the legend. *Sigh* Also, RIP my alma mater Coffee High - your legends live on in our hearts! The building was razed to build a new school on the site just a few years ago.
7. Ghost Bridge
For anyone who grew up in the Shoals, Ghost Bridge was no legend at all. It was our "go to" spot for a Friday or Saturday night drive to the spookiest spot in town. It was a steel truss bridge erected over Cypress Creek and officially known as Jackson Ford Bridge. The bridge had one lane going across it that was made of wooden planks laid just wide enough for a vehicles tires. Come to think if it - knowing I drove across that bridge as a teenager is probably the scariest part! The bridge was sworn by many to be haunted. It was located very close to the old Forks of Cypress plantation ruins and the area around it had supposedly seen several civil war conflicts, horrific lynchings, murders, and the sharp curve in the road approaching the bridge had caused more than one death via car accident. There were also horrifying tales of devil worshippers lurking in the surrounding woods waiting for a carload of teens to become stranded. After 2013, however, Ghost Bridge became just another legend. That's the year the antique bridge was completely dismantled although many locals petitioned to save the historical relic. Prior to that the road leading to the bridge had been closed since 1996. So, although Ghost Bridge may just be an urban legend to the younger generations, us older folks can tell you with certainty that it was very much real More detailed info and photos of the bridge during its dismantling can be found here.
8. Chupacabra in Sheffield
This is probably the youngest of the urban legends of the Shoals and you may not have hard of this one - but it caused quite a stir among locals for a period of time. Spotted in Riverfront park by many individuals and groups of people in the late summer and early fall of 2005, this terrifying looking beast could be none other than the blood sucking Chupacabra. According to witnesses, it was about the size of a dog but definitely not a dog. It was hairless, had a long snout and it's tail dragged the ground. After seeing this, how could anyone come to the conclusion that they had seen anything besides the goat killing alien spawn of South America??!!! This is Sheffield, after all! (No offense to my Sheffield friends, please). When Times Daily reporter, Bernie Delinski, published a story about these sightings (read it here), several more eye witnesses reached out to him and one even had a photo of the creature! I couldn't find the photo- but Bernie said it was creepy. Anyway, as much as I would love to keep this urban legend going and do my part to contribute for my fellow crypto zoology fans, I have to report that this urban legend came to a screeching halt when the creature was captured and turned out to be a poor little pooch with a bad case of the mange.
9. Mountain Tom Clark is buried beneath Tennessee Street in downtown Florence.
In the time after the civil war, much of the south was like the wild west. Bands of outlaws roamed the countryside pillaging and murdering innocent people. Lauderdale County had been terrorized by such a gang of outlaws led by a particularly nasty fellow known as Mountain Tom Clark who had especially angered locals as he bragged of his exploits. Clark had fled the area and avoided capture for quite a while - but once he was spotted near Waterloo, Florence's sheriff quickly assembled a posse and captured Clark with 2 accomplices. Before the 3 captured outlaws could be tried in court, a mob of local vigilantes took justice into their own hands and hanged the trio. Since the townsfolk didn't want these criminals buried in the local sacred Florence Cemetery, the judge told the townspeople to bury them in a field across the street. Supposedly, someone who recalled hearing Mountain Tom brag that "No one ever runs over Tom Clark," came up with the idea to bury him directly under Tennessee Street where EVERYONE could run over him daily as this was a main thoroughfare to the city. Although no official record exsists that this legend is true, it is such a persuasive urban legend that a historical marker was erected retelling the story.
10. Lost treasure
What list of urban legends would be complete without including at least one legend of lost treasure? I've heard of several of these legends, myself, and found a few more online. As of date, none of the treasures have been found or perhaps the finders kept very quiet! Since lost treasures can be complicated to explain and details often hard to validate, I'm going to leave a list of lost treasure supposedly in or near the Shoals with links to more info on each one. There is one catch, however. If any of you happen to find one of these hidden treasures after reading this article, you definitely owe me a finders fee!
▪︎C.E. Sharp's buried gold at White's Mill
▪︎Ferry operator, Levi Colbert, buried treasure at Buzzard's Roost
▪︎Chief Doublehead's silver mine and lost Inca treasure
▪︎ DeSoto's treasure and the legend of Red Bone Cave
Do you have another urban legend of the Shoals?
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