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September 18, 2007   Email to Friend 

History Comes Alive on the Tensaw Delta
Debra Davis

The park holds Civil War re-enactments at the site of the war's last battle.
Tucked into the briny, swift waters where the Mobile and Alabama rivers flow into the Gulf of Mexico forming the Tensaw Delta, Historic Blakeley State Park is one of the state's hidden treasures. Here, amid the moss-draped live oaks, the distant echoes of cannon fire and native American songs seem to draw visitors back to a time when Alabama's Gulf Coast was wild and untamed.

"You can almost smell the gun powder from the battles here," said Fred Nation, a naturalist and member of the park's board of directors who recently guided a group of Alabama Farmers Federation members on a tour there.

The park's director, Jo Ann Flirt, a former newspaper reporter who talks of the park's rich history like a mother speaks of her children, said one of Blakeley's biggest claims to fame is that it is the site of the last major battle of the Civil War.

"It was April 9, 1865, and 30,000 Union soldiers were moving on the fort where there were 3,500 Confederate soldiers," Flirt said. "It happened on a Sunday about 5 p.m. What is significant about that day is that it's the same day (Gen. Robert E.) Lee surrendered to (Gen. Ulysses S.) Grant, and the war effectively ended. Of course, at that time, there was no way for the soldiers here to know that it had happened earlier that day.

"It was a fierce battle, but one that didn't last too long. It was an all-forces battle with cavalry, artillery, infantry and naval forces in the nearby river," Flirt added. "Of course the battle didn't get a lot of publicity at the time because it was just a few days later that President Lincoln was shot and killed and the war was over."

Today, visitors can view remnants of the battlefields and camps, both Confederate and Union, which are preserved inside the park's confines. But the history of the area appeals to more than just Civil War enthusiasts. In fact, the Town of Blakeley dates back to the early 1800s - making it the oldest continuous town in Baldwin County and one of the oldest in the state.

Chartered in 1814 by the Mississippi Territory; re-chartered in 1818 by the Alabama Territory; and chartered once more by the State of Alabama in 1820, Blakeley reached its zenith in the 1820s when its population hovered around 4,000. At the time, Blakeley even overshadowed the City of Mobile across the bay as people flocked to the beautiful shores of the Tensaw River to stay in hotels, shop in stores and build majestic homes.

But two bouts of yellow fever all but wiped the town from the map. With less than 100 inhabitants, Blakeley slowly began to die out. It was temporarily resurrected again during the Civil War when it was transformed into Fort Blakely (spelled this way during the Civil War years). Following the war, the land stood idle for better than 100 years until Historic Blakeley State Park was created.

In 1974, the State of Alabama nominated the area for the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1981 the Historic Blakeley Authority was created to operate the park. It is the largest National Historic Register Site east of the Mississippi River -- encompassing 3,800 acres nestled beside the Tensaw River. It also boasts 10.5 miles of magnificent nature trails and bicycle and horse paths.

"The history of Blakeley is older than the town itself," Flirt said. "There were prehistoric Indians here, and there's an Appalachian Indian site from the 1740s where the Indians, who fled here from Florida, came to be protected by the French."

But there's more than just history at Blakeley Park. It is a popular spot for bird watchers or anyone who enjoys the natural beauty that abounds in the Tensaw Delta. The park offers tours aboard the Delta Explorer, a 50-passenger, handicapped-accessible boat that features bench seating and restroom facilities. It allows tourists to see wetland habitats ranging from marsh to cypress-tupelo swamp and bottomland hardwoods. The delta also is home to the state's largest population of alligators, black bears, the rare red-bellied turtle, osprey, bald eagles, water snakes and game fish.

"There is so much history here," Flirt said. "And we stress the importance of preserving nature here as well. This is an unusual place because of its historical significance, but there are also a lot of distinctive plants and animals that make this such a special place. There are so many different kinds of plant life that include wetlands and wildlife, and there's a wild orchid that grows here that's not found anywhere else in Alabama.

"This is a very unique and special place. It just happens that the natural attractions all come together in one spot. It is a real jewel for our state."

The entrance to the park is on State Highway 225 near Spanish Fort. Admission to the Delta Explorer costs $20 for adults and $10 for children ages 6-12. Children under 6 are admitted free. Tour times vary by season, so check with park officials or visit the park's Web site at www.BlakeleyPark.com or call (251) 626-0798. Special group tours also are available.

Other features at the park include the Apalachee Campground with full utility hookups, and the Harper primitive campground for tents and pop-ups. The park is open from 9 a.m. to dusk each day, seven days a week.

The park accepts MasterCard and Visa credit and debit cards. Upcoming events include the Blakeley Bluegrass Festival Oct. 6.

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