The city of Decatur is located in northern Alabama along the Tennessee River and is the county seat of Morgan County. It is known as the "River City" because it was originally a river crossing for settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains; the location on the river still allows Decatur to be a major transportation hub in the Southeast. Decatur received its name on June 16, 1820, in honor of Stephen Decatur, a naval hero of the War of 1812. The Alabama Legislature officially incorporated the city in 1826. Decatur has a mayor-council form of government with a mayor who serves as the chief executive officer and five council members who each serve a five-year term. The city currently has approximately 55,000 residents.
Decatur has been home to several nationally and even internationally recognized individuals. Actor Dean Jones, best known for his roles in Disney films such as The Love Bug, was born there in 1931. Actor Lucas Black, born in 1982, has appeared in such films as Jarhead, Friday Night Lights, Cold Mountain, and Crazy in Alabama. Football players RaTavious Anton "Taye" Biddle (b. 1983), wide receiver for a number of teams in the National Football League
and the Canadian Football league, and Philip Rivers (b. 1981), starting quarterback for the San Diego Chargers, were both
born in Decatur. Truett Banks "Rip" Sewell of Decatur became a starting pitcher in Major League Baseball. He played for the Detroit Tigers in 1932 and the Pittsburgh
Pirates from 1938 to 1949.
Early settlers were drawn to Decatur because of the area's fertile soil and easy river access to other cities. In 1836, Decatur became the eastern boundary of the first railroad line west of the Appalachian Mountains. This event would change the city's history by boosting the economy and causing a rapid population increase in the area. With the arrival of the railroad, Decatur became home to two major industrial outlets—the Tennessee River and the Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur Railroad—and soon became a primary industrial and transportation hub.
During the Civil War, Union and Confederate armies fought to maintain control over the strategic city. At war's end, the city was devastated with
all but three buildings burned to the ground. The citizens of Decatur immediately began rebuilding, and by the late 1880s—approximately
10 years after the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1877—the city began to expand once again. In 1886, the Decatur Land, Improvement, and Furnace Company began promoting a new city to the southeast of Decatur called New Decatur.
In September 1916, the people of New Decatur voted to change the town's name to Albany to avoid the "Decatur" label. During
the attempt to complete the Keller Bridge across the Tennessee River, both Albany and Decatur cooperated financially. After
a move toward municipal unity, the Alabama legislature attempted to make Albany part of Decatur on August 28, 1923. However,
conflicts arose over higher taxes in Albany and the different debt loads of the two towns. Ultimately, the Alabama Supreme
Court ruled that the union of the two towns was unconstitutional. However, four years later, in 1927, after the issues were
resolved, the legislature was finally able to merge the two towns before the completion of the Keller Bridge.
Decatur continued to grow during the early twentieth century, and by 1929 Decatur's first traffic lights were installed. Also, after the U.S. Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, Decatur and other parts of north Alabama benefited from dams and hydroelectric plants constructed in the area. The dams provided flood control, improved navigation, and offered affordable electricity to Decatur and other residents of the Tennessee Valley. By the late 1930s, Decatur's agricultural economy began to make a recovery from the Great Depression.
According to the 2010 Census, Decatur’s population was 55,683. Of that number, 66.5 percent reported themselves as white, 21.7 percent as African American, 12.7 percent as Hispanic or Latino, 0.9 percent as Asian, and 0.7 percent as Native American. The city's median household income was $40,765, and per capita income was $22,483.
The workforce in present-day Decatur is divided among the following occupational categories:
· Manufacturing (20.5 percent)
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (15.8 percent)
· Retail trade (11.1 percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (10.5 percent)
· Construction (8.9 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (8.0 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (7.1 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (5.0 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing and utilities (4.2 percent)
· Public administration (3.1 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (2.2 percent)
· Information (1.9 percent)
· Wholesale trade (1.7 percent)
Decatur includes 12 elementary schools, which each serve anywhere from 200 to 550 students; three middle schools, which each serve approximately 700 students; and two high schools that both have around 1,000 students. Overall, there are 8,829 students and 548 teachers in the Decatur City School District. Decatur has the only school system in the state north of Birmingham that offers the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program and is the only one in Alabama that offers it specifically to middle schools. This program provides international education and ultimately prepares young students for the university experience. Decatur is ranked in the top 10 school systems in the state.
John C. Calhoun Community College is the largest two-year institution in The Alabama College System, with just over 9,000
students; it offers 49 associate degree programs and 52 career/certificate programs.
The Tennessee River, which serves as the northernmost border of Decatur, is still an important transportation resource, with the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway connecting Morgan County with other major inland waterway ports. This waterway reduces the original navigational distance from Tennessee, north Alabama, and Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico by hundreds of miles. Three public barge terminals are also used by the city. The Norfolk Southern railroad system connects Decatur with other major rail terminals in the United States.
Interstate 65 and US 31 both link Morgan County to north-south interstate systems, and Interstate 565 as well as US 72 both provide east-west connections. Alabama Highway 20/US 72A, which serves as the main east-west route between Memphis and Atlanta, runs through Decatur. AL 67 is used as the western edge business road that connects Decatur to surrounding counties in the southeastern direction. AL 24 is a four-lane highway that travels southwest from Decatur.
Events and Places of Interest
Decatur offers residents a number of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Its location on the Tennessee River allows locals and visitors to enjoy boating, fishing, and water skiing. Decatur is also the location of Point Mallard, one of Alabama's largest recreational facilities. The park includes 750 acres of land, on which one can find the J. Gilmer Blackburn Aquatic Center, a golf course, an indoor ice rink, hiking/biking trails by the river, sports fields, and campgrounds. Other places of interest include the Jack Allen Sports Complex, North Alabama Birding Trail, Riverwalk Marina, and other parks. Decatur is the nearest city to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, which includes 35,000 acres of land to provide a safe habitat for wintering and migrating birds in the eastern United States. It is named for Wheeler Lake, along the Tennessee River. Also, Decatur served as the location for the filming of the movie Tom and Huck in 1995.
Decatur includes places for the arts such as the Carnegie Visual Arts Center and the historic Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts, which was created in 1919 from a renovated livery stable. Another important historical site is the Old State Bank, which operated from 1833 to 1842. This bank can still be visited today as the Old State Bank Museum, which offers a perspective on early banking in Alabama.It is also a reminder of the moment that Decatur transitioned into an established town.
Decatur hosts the annual Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic Festival, held at Point Mallard Park every Memorial Day Weekend. Along with hot air balloons, the festival offers an antique car show, antique tractor show, art show, and kite festival. The Spirit of America Festival, which began in 1969, is also held at Point Mallard Park every July 3rd and 4th. This free event includes the crowning of Miss Point Mallard, a preliminary for the Miss America Scholarship Pageant, which precedes a huge fireworks show, live music, an awards ceremony, and various children's activities and family games in celebration of Independence Day.
Another event held in Decatur is the annual Corn Day Festival, which features local artists and musicians along with free
corn on the cob and other local produce. The Southern Wildlife Festival combines art and wildlife. It includes a showcase
of wildlife paintings, carvings, and photographs, as well as educational seminars that provide painting and carving demos
and even live birds of prey. During the festival, "Kids Gone Wild" gives children the opportunity to make bird feeders and other wildlife art.
The show is held on the campus of John C. Calhoun College in October.
Jenkins, William H. and John Knox. The Story of Decatur, Alabama. Decatur, Ala.: Decatur Printing Co., 1970.
Published May 13, 2009
Last updated June 20, 2013