Neely Henry: A Look Back

If y’all haven’t been to Neely Henry, then you’re really missing out. The lake is currently known for its fishing and recreational opportunities, but the area also has a lot to offer to history buffs. I’m not a historian by any means, but below is a very (and I really mean very) brief look back at the region. I hope y’all enjoy this as much as did learning about it!

Native Americans and European Conflict:

Prior to European colonization in Alabama, the lower portion of the Coosa Valley was ruled by Chief Tascaluza. In 1540, Hernando De Soto’s entourage was the first of the Europeans to enter the Coosa Valley and travel south along the river until he came upon the town of  Athahachi (possibly located at the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa), the seat of Chief Tuscaluza. After De Soto’s arrival, his entourage captured the Tuscaluza in an attempt to secure safe passage in the region. Instead,  Tuscaluza tricked his captors into traveling to the town of Mabila, a town that was already prepared to attack De Soto’s forces. Once they arrived, Tuscaluza was able to escape and the battle of Mabila ensued. The battle resulted in losses on both sides, but De Soto landed a massive blow on the town and  Tuscaluza’s forces. After the bloody battle, De Soto left the region and traveled westward. After De Soto, the region’s natives would not encounter other Europeans for almost a century. 

Left: Chief Tuskaloosa. Drawing by H. Roe.

Right: Hernando De Soto. Courtesy- John Sartain and Lambart A. Wilmer.

In the late seventeenth century, British and French Europeans came to the region to set up trade and to attempt to colonize the area. What the Europeans saw when they arrived in the region was a significantly diminished Native American population due the conflict and spread of disease by the Spanish a century prior. After

the passage of time that included conflict, trade, and treaties, the British had established themselves in the region. The colonization of the Coosa region was complete after General Andrew Jackson’s campaign in the Creek War was successful. After that, settlers came in droves to the region and river towns, such as Gadsden, began popping up all along the Coosa.

Popeye the Sailor Man and the Steamboat Era:

Before Neely Henry dam was constructed, steamboats would come to and fro between Rome, Georgia and Gadsden, Alabama. Steamboats were a way of life for the folks who lived and conducted business on the Coosa. Initially, steamboats were used to transport goods between river towns, but that eventually ended upon the advent of the railroad. Transporting goods via steamboat became obsolete, so most were repurposed for either construction projects on the river, or became vessels for upper class citizens to enjoy a night cruising up and down the river. The steamboat way of life also influenced a timeless pop cultural icon. 

Popeye the Sailor Man. Image courtesy:

Tom Sims, a Cartoonist who wrote “Popeye the Sailor Man,” drew inspiration from his own experiences on working on a steam boat.  While Popeye was originally created by Elzie Segar for the cartoon strip “Thimble Theater,” it was Tom Sims who spun off the character from “Thimble Theater” to create the Popeye we know and love. Tom lived in Ohatchee, Alabama and used the sites, the people, and his father’s steamboat, the Leota, as inspirations for the comic strip.

Tom was interviewed by Hughes Reynolds in an interview for The Coosa River Valley from De Soto to Hydroelectric Power (The Hobson Book Press) and said that “As a boy I was raised on the Coosa River. When I began writing the script for Popeye I put my characters back on the old Leota that I knew as a boy, transformed it into a ship and made the Coosa River a salty sea.”

The Annie M,  renamed the Leota, was the inspiration of the ship in “Popeye the Sailor Man.”Photo Courtesy: Riverboat Dave

Construction of Neely Henry Dam:

Eventually the steamboat era that served as an inspiration for Popeye ended, and the era of lake life began. This was finalized with the construction of the dams on the Coosa, creating what we now  know as Lake Jordan, Lake Mitchell, Lay Lake, Logan Martin Lake, and, Neely Henry Lake. The first dam to be constructed on the river was Mitchell Dam in 1923 and the final dam, Neely Henry, was finished in 1966.

Neely Henry Dam has provided flood control management, electricity, and recreation to the region for just over 50 years now! But, unfortunately, the construction of the dams along the Coosa came at a great cost. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the construction of the dams along the Coosa caused the extinction of the 36 species (the largest mass extinction event in modern North American history). While it is too late to turn back the clock on such a tragedy, there are plenty of ways to make the Coosa a better place to live for all the critters that rely on it.

Image courtesy: Alabama News Center

Oh, and one last thing! Have y’all heard about the economic impact study that Neely Henry has on the region? It was conducted by Jacksonville State University and highlights just how important Neely Henry is. Check it out here!

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