The head waters of Hatchet Creek rise in the Talladega mountains and the creek officially begins where its east and west forks come together near Bull’s Gap in Clay County. Steadily gaining strength from innumerable springs and branches, the creek then flows southwesterly for approximately forty miles through Clay and Coosa Counties before emptying into the backwaters of Lake Mitchell. During its course, Hatchet falls over 400 feet in elevation and is laced with numerous stretches of white water as it flows over rocky shoals and ledges of granite. For much of the way the creek is hemmed in with steep hills, heavily forested with second growth hardwood and pine. For long stretches, the roar of rapids and the unbroken walls of green, give to Hatchet a wilderness character unique among Alabama’s waterways.
Hatchet has not always been so detached from man’s ordinary, workday endeavors. When the earliest settlers moved into the area in the 1830’s they immediately recognized Hatchet and its swift flowing tributaries as prime sources of power. Rough stone dams were thrown across the creek at strategic spots and mills were constructed for grinding corn, ginning cotton, sawing lumber and weaving cloth. Old time residents estimate there were once as many as 30 water powered mills along the main course of the creek and a number of others on its tributaries. With the advent of electricity and modern transportation, the water powered mills on Hatchet became obsolete and were abandoned one by one. All of the mill dams have now long since been swept away by spring floods and only the moss covered stone foundations of the mills, overgrown with trees and wild grapevines, remain to commemorate the days when Hatchet was the industrial artery of Coosa and Clay counties.
Although the mills along hatchet itself are now gone beyond recognition, an impressive example can still be seen on one of its tributaries. Located on Baker’s Creek near Kellyton, the Bradford Cotton Factory was probably the most ambitious industrial undertaking in the area. During the late 1830’s John Bradford, a native of Tennessee, settled in Coosa County and built this textile mill for making cotton cloth, The factory building itself was a massive three story structure of native stone. By means of a dam and diversional channel, the entire flow of Baker’s Creek could be diverted through a stone flume to turn the great water wheel. Although the mill has now been abandoned for over 100 years, a good portion of the stone walls remain intact and show the massive scale of the building and engineering works.
The early settlers of the area were vigorous men and they took respite from their labors, their recreation was often as rough as their work. According to Brewer’s History of Coosa County one of the best known spots on Hatchet during the early days of the county was a holstery known as Traveler’s Rest. Situated in a remote area on the lower reaches of the creek, this combination blacksmith shop, distillery and barroom became a rather dubious light shining in the wilderness. Because of the incessant rioting, drinking and fighting which took place there, it became commonly known as The Devil’s Half Acre, and in time, the official name was all but forgotten. In churches up and down the county, many a fiery sermon was no doubt inspired by the riotous activities carried on at Traveler’s Rest.
With the outbreak of the War Between the States, the communities of the Hatchet Creek area rallied strongly to the banner of the South. Companies were scattered among a number of Alabama Regiments and fought in nearly every major engagement of the war. Most of the community leaders and the promising young men went into service. And the losses were fearful. By way of illustration, company B of the Eighth Alabama Regiment was organized in Coosa in May 1861, and kept at a strength of 9 commissioned officers and 144 enlisted men until January, 1865. During the course of the war, this one Company lost 23 killed, 23 dead of disease, 58 wounded and 22 captured. For individual families the loss was sometime even more grievous. In the cemetery of the Hatchet Creek Presbyterian Church near Goodwater there is a stone obelisk erected by a Clay County family after the war. On each side is engraved the name of a son killed in battle. Unmindful of the distant conflict, the creek rolled on, responding only to the march of the seasons, but for the people along its banks the flush days were over and a chapter had been closed.
After the War Between the States, the life of the communities along Hatchet Creek slowed to a steady uneventful pace varied only by the changing seasons. A detailed picture of everyday life during the 1880’s and 1890’s is painted in Mitchell B. Garrett’s Horse and Buggy Days on Hatchet Creek. In this most interesting reminiscence, Mr. Garrett faithfully covers every aspect of life, love and politics in the Clay County community where he grew up.
Life along Hatchet Creek in those days was a mixed bag. Nobody worried about international tensions but nearly everybody lost their teeth. Boys could romp barefooted through endless summer days but they had a rough time with hookworm and wood ticks. Nobody had plumbing and an outhouse was a sign of affluence rather than poverty. The greatest events of the year were the long term wagon trips in Goodwater and Talladega to sell the cotton crop-and spend the proceeds thereof.
Through good times and bad, the creek was the common thread that wove the scattered farms into a community. It powered the two mills upon which everyone depended for flour, lumber and other necessities. And in addition, many of the pleasant things in life such as swimming, fishing and church picnics were centered on its banks.
One factor which contributed greatly to the long time isolation of many of the communities along Hatchet Creek was simply the difficulty of bridging the creek. For many years the Central of Georgia railroad terminated at Goodwater largely because of the engineering problems involved in extending the line across the creek. When the present trestle was built around 1910 it was the highest railroad bridge in the United States. The trestle was considered of such strategic importance during World War II that sentries were posted on both banks of the creek 24 hours a day to guard against German saboteurs. The trestle is still impressive today, particularly when you come floating around a quiet bend in the creek and suddenly, with a roar, there appears a fright train hurdling high above the tops of the trees.
As transportation improved, there was less dependence on the small water powered mills and around the turn of the century they began slipping into a steady decline. However, the swift flowing waters of Hatchet Creek were soon harnessed for a new use. Around 1905 the towns of Sylacauga and Goodwater both built municipal hydroelectric plants on the creek.
The Goodwater dam and generator were constructed a short distance below where U.S. Highway 280 now crosses the creek. Although the generating equipment was fairly reliable, its output was just barely enough to accommodate the ordinary needs of the town. Accordingly, whenever there was a night basketball game at the high school or some other community gathering after dark all of the residence of Goodwater would turn out the electric lights in their homes to insure there would be enough juice to keep the meeting properly illuminated.
The dam and generator constructed by the City of Sylacauga was located a short distance downstream from where U.S. 231 now crosses the creek near Rockford. The generator for the plant was shipped by rail to Sylacauga and then hauled to the sight over dirt roads. In the Old Hickory Restaurant in Sylacauga there is a large photograph taken on the main street of Sylacauga showing the oversized wagons drawn by long teams of oxen setting for Hatchet Creek with the original generator auxiliary equipment.
With the construction of large and more efficient power plants on the Coosa and Tallapoosa, both the Sylacauga and the Goodwater installations became obsolete and were abandoned in the 1920’s. The Sylacauga dam was later breached by dynamite and the sight has now been effectively power reclaimed by the forest. The Goodwater power house is also gone, but the dam remains intact and creates the only impoundment which exists on Hatchet at the present time.
And so, Hatchet is again basically a free flowing stream. During periods of heavy rainfall, the creek is stained to a coffee-with-cream color by the red clay soils of the area. But ordinarily, the flow is clear. Particularly, in the late summer and fall when the water is low, you can see bottom in the shallows and deep into the pools. Although there is a respectable population of game and pan fish in Hatchet, it would be inaccurate to call it a hot fishing spot. For fishermen who wish most for a big catch to remember, some pond or backwater is the place to go. But for those who wish a day to remember, a float down Hatchet can always be rewarding.
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