Sometimes it takes a while to get just the right name—about as long as it takes to get other things straightened out. Such is the case, apparently, with the little Alabama mountain town of Piedmont.
At first this community just north of Anniston was known as “Hollow Stump.” It made the most wonderful sense. Sometime in the early 1840’s burgeoning civilization had sprung up here at the conjunction of two post roads, and the mail deliverer needed a place to pick up and drop off folks’ mail. What place better than a hollow stump? John Doe, Hollow Stump, Alabama. Perfect.
When a more dignified (actual) post office appeared not long after, however, a more appealing appellation was in order. This time “Griffen’s Creek” was the name of choice. Had locals actually seen a griffin on the loose near one of the several creeks that range through this pretty hideaway on the edge of the mountains? More likely some early settler named Griffen had a well-known cabin situated near the stream. History does not specify. No matter: this name was also soon trumped by another.
In 1848 Major Jacob Forney Dailey of North Carolina moved in, bought up a chunk of land, and dubbed the area “Cross Plains,” since this was not merely the point of convergence for postal roads but for the numerous Indian trails that preceded them. This time the name stuck—for a while anyway. It became official in 1851 and remained triumphant with hardly a whisper of competition until 1888, when the name “Piedmont”—referring to the gentle slope of land leading away from the foot of a mountain—was permanently adopted.
The “whisper of competition” came in 1870. That fateful year the town, for whatever reason, adopted the name “Patona”—Spanish for “clumsy-footed”—and then rejected it again within six months. One wonders, however, if the name reversal occurred quickly enough before a good bit of bad luck set in.
As Gene Howard tells the story in A Death at Cross Plains: An Alabama Reconstruction Tragedy, the Selma, Rome, and Dalton Railroad, whose president was New York’s Franklin Hughes Delano (FDR’s uncle) had plans to make this fledgling community their headquarters. That would mean really big business for Cross Plains for many years to come. As part of the railroad’s plan, the company wanted a ready pool of low-pay, easy-to-control laborers and hired former minister and Irish-Canadian William Luke to educate recently-liberated blacks for the job.
Luke took his job seriously—and found out the hard way that education can be a powder keg. When Luke began encouraging equal rights (popular Reconstruction talk) among his students, it was only a matter of time before ignition and the subsequent blast. Ignition: a Cross Plains black man got into it with a white boy on a train. Blast: Soon the entire Cross Plains depot was the site of a town-wide fistfight—which turned into a gunfight before the day was out.
Several blacks were arrested—along with one white man: William Luke. At the makeshift trial that followed, Luke apparently admitted he had provided guns to the blacks. His doom was sealed. When the “court” recessed for the night, the local KKK quickly got into action and, supported by a town mob, lynched six black men. Luke? They hanged him also, but only after providing him a white man’s courtesy by allowing him to write a note to his wife:
My Dear Wife:
I die tonight. It has been so determined by those who think I deserve it. God only knows I feel myself entirely innocent of the charge. I have only sought to educate the negro. I little thought when leaving you that we should thus part forever so distant from each other. But God’s will be done. He will be to you a husband better than I have been, and a father to our six little ones. . . .
Your loving husband,
The story of the entire incident, including the lynching, was published in papers from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the New York Times. Delano and the railroad magnates from New York decided not to make Cross Plains/Patona/Griffen’s Creek/Hollow Stump the site of their headquarters. Cross Plains went on about its business as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened and became Piedmont eighteen years later.
Fortunately the town has long outlived the shadows of those unpleasant times. The old railway depot where the trouble began is now a treasured historic building listed with the National Register of Historic Places. And in 1990 Piedmont initiated a project to convert the old railway bed into a paved biking and hiking path. The Chief Ladiga Trail now extends over thirty-three incredibly beautiful miles from Anniston through the Tallageda National Forest to the Georgia border, where it joins the sixty-three-mile Silver Comet Trail leading nearly to Atlanta. The two trails combined form the longest paved recreational path of its kind in America.
So as it turns out, the town not only got a new name that finally stuck, it gathered up its resources and created something new to be known for: Piedmont, Home of the Chief Ladiga Trail. Biking and hiking enthusiasts the world over have a very nice place to check out in northeastern Alabama if they haven’t found it already.