Historic Blakeley State Park covers 3,800 acres along the Tensaw River in Baldwin County near the town of Spanish Fort. It is the largest site on the National Register of Historic Places east of the Mississippi River and preserves acreage that was important in Alabama's Native American and Civil War history. It also provides educational and recreational opportunities for visitors.
Sometime in the eighteenth century, a French colonial plantation became the first non-Indian settlement in the area. In 1814, the riverfront town of Blakeley was founded and chartered by Josiah Blakeley with the intent of it becoming Alabama's premier port city. It quickly became a busy center of commerce for southern Alabama, with a courthouse, hotels, docks, private residences, stores, churches, and warehouses and more than 4,000 residents. The town was Baldwin County's first county seat and at one time was larger than nearby Mobile until yellow fever epidemics in 1822, 1826, and 1828 decimated the populace. By 1828, the Mobile Commercial Register reported that Blakeley had fallen into decay. The county seat was moved to Daphne in 1868.
During the Civil War, the Confederate Army established the earthen Fort Blakely (note the different spelling) on the site with entrenchments and nine gun emplacements. On April 9, 1865, six hours after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, it was the site of one of the last major battles of the Civil War, when 4,000 Confederate troops were attacked and defeated by a force of 16,000 Union soldiers. Each April, the park hosts the Battle of Blakeley Festival, which features a re-enactment of this battle.
Despite all this history, with the exception of the well-preserved Civil War fortifications, scant evidence of the site's importance remains. The most prominent features are the five miles of breastworks, earthen fortifications, rifle pits, and the remains of artillery emplacements. No trace of the French plantation remains, and the only evidence of the town of Blakeley are the ancient massive oak trees that mark where the streets once existed, gravestones in the old town cemetery, a scattering of ruins of the town jail and a few other structures, and a huge oak tree that was supposedly used as the town's "hanging tree" for public executions.
After the Civil War, the site remained untouched for more than 100 years. In 1976, local civic leaders formed the private non-profit Historic Blakeley Foundation to acquire land and establish the park. In 1981, the Alabama State Legislature designated Blakeley as a state park and created the Historic Blakeley Authority (HBA), an independent state agency, to operate and manage the park. The HBA is governed by a 21-member board consisting of elected public officials, members of historic organizations and at-large members appointed by the governor. Private land donations and contributions and public funding all aided the initial acquisitions of land for the park. In 1990, International Paper Company donated 1,000 acres to the foundation, and in 1998, 420 additional acres were purchased through the state's Forever Wild program. In 1995, Blakeley was added to the Civil War Discovery Trail, which links more than 300 significant Civil War sites in 16 states.
Although it is called a state park and receives funding from the state general fund, it is not operated by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as the other state parks are, but instead by the Historic Blakeley Authority. The appropriation for the park was $182,000 in 2010.
The park today offers visitors a variety of recreational opportunities with more than 10 miles of hiking and biking trails and horse paths, a quarter-mile boardwalk that leads to the banks of the Tensaw River, and two observation/fishing decks on the Tensaw River. One of the hiking trails, the Breastworks Trail, follows the line of surviving Confederate breastworks and takes hikers through the fort. Blakeley has two campgrounds; one features pull-through sites with full utility hookups for recreational vehicles, and the other is designated for tents and pop-up trailers. The park is a key site for birders and is a stop on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail.
The park's Gatra Wehle Nature Center features environmental educational exhibits on the park and on the nearby Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Located a short hike from the Tensaw River, the Nature Center has a state-of-the-art audiovisual theater and conference
area and exhibit room. An informational kiosk near the center displays information on local flora and fauna. Visitors can
also take advantage of the park's tour boat, the Delta Explorer, which offers eco-tours on the Tensaw River and in the Tensaw-Mobile River Delta to sail through cypress and tupelo swamps
and wetland habitats. During the two-hour tours, visitors may encounter alligators, black bears, bald eagles, osprey, and
snakes, and waterfowl and shorebirds are prevalent most of the year. Nearby Indian mounds, such as those at the Bottle Creek site, date to the Mississippian Period.
Walker, Sue. In the Realm of Rivers: Alabama's Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2004.
Thomas V. Ress
Published March 21, 2011
Last updated December 18, 2012