Before settlement, the region that includes Fort Payne was Cherokee territory. Some time in the mid-seventeenth century, Cherokee leader William "Big Will" Weber and his followers migrated to the area and established settlements in the valley between Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain. The area became known as Big Will's Valley, with the largest settlement being Willstown. For a time, Willstown was home to Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 set the stage for settlement by white migrants from the Carolinas.
Economic Development and Employment
The discovery of nearby coal and iron ore initiated Fort Payne's industrialization in the 1880s. The "boom" times of Fort Payne began with the founding of the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company by wealthy New England speculators in 1889. This investment in Fort Payne helped attract additional investors and settlers to the area, sparking a period of phenomenal growth. Wealthy transplanted New Englanders financed the construction of rolling mills, foundries, steel plants, and other industries. During this time, town leaders brought electricity to much of the town, the Fort Payne Opera House was built, and the opulent 125-room DeKalb Hotel served visitors from around the world. When the coal and iron deposits around Fort Payne became unprofitable and wealthy investors withdrew their support, Fort Payne's economy quickly collapsed. Although the boom lasted only four years, many notable and historic buildings remain from this period.
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (13.2 percent)
· Retail trade (11.9 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (7.7 percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (6.0 percent)
· Construction (5.6 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (4.2 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing and utilities (4.1 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (3.9 percent)
· Wholesale trade (3.6 percent)
· Public administration (3.4 percent)
· Information (1.2 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (0.4 percent)
The Fort Payne City School System, consisting of two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school, ranks 55th out of 128 public school systems in Alabama. With approximately 2,900 students and 176 teachers, Fort Payne's $7,172 per-pupil expenditure is below the state average.
Fort Payne is served by a network of federal and state highways. Interstate 59 runs north-south through Big Wills Valley and connects Fort Payne to Birmingham, Gadsden, and Chattanooga. US Highway 11 parallels Interstate 85 through Fort Payne and Big Wills Valley. State Highway 35 runs east-west through Fort Payne and provides four-lane access across Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain. Railroad transportation through Fort Payne is provided by the Alabama Great Southern Railroad. Isbell Field is a city owned public-use airport with a 5,000-foot runway.
Events and Places of Interest
Fort Payne and the surrounding area offer many opportunities for outdoor recreation and cultural enjoyment. The historic Fort Payne Opera House is still in use and hosts live theatrical events throughout the year. Another building from the boom times, the 1891 pink sandstone Fort Payne Depot, is now operated as a local history museum. The town is a short drive away from both DeSoto State Park and the Little River Canyon National Preserve. These parks protect the nation's longest mountaintop river, which flows for almost its entire length down the middle of Lookout Mountain.
The Heritage of DeKalb County Alabama, Volume 1. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, 1998.