History of Cypress Creek

Cypress Cotton Mill, Florence-Lauderdale Public Library Digital Archive

Cypress Creek is formed by the merging of many creeks across northwest Lauderdale County – including Threet Creek, Little Cypress Creek, Middle Cypress Creek, Cox Creek and the North Fork – making up one of the largest water drainage systems in Lauderdale County. Like Muscle Shoals – which was also referred to as Mussel Shoals – the spelling of the creek’s name is varied in the historic record. For example, in the 1806 Hopewell Treaty of Indian Lands Cessation, the creek is referred to as “Cyprus Creek.”

Native Americans, who first arrived in northwest Alabama around 12,000 years ago, left behind evidence of their presence on the Cypress Creek water system. Spear points, pottery shards, chunky stones, and other artifacts have been found on the banks of the creeks. Many of the branches of the creek, including Threet Creek and the North Fork, ran across the Natchez Trace, which served as an important migration and trade route though the region for indigenous people – and the Anglo-American settlers who made their way into the region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Cypress Mill, Florence-Lauderdale Public Library Digital Archive

Early settlers to northwest Alabama realized the potential of the creek to generate power to fuel economic growth in Lauderdale County. During the nineteenth century, lumber mills, grain mills, woolen mills, and cotton mills used the waters of the creek to power their operation. The textile story of Florence – which eventually resulted in the city earning the nickname “The T-shirt Capital of the World” in the twentieth century, got its start on the banks of Cypress Creek. Records suggest the first cotton mill located on the creek was Cypress Mill, constructed just north of Wildwood Park sometime between 1820 and 1822. Other early mills included Kernachan Cotton Mill and the Skipworth Mill. Later ventures on the creek, including Martin’s Mills (1839), are better documented. Martin’s Mills purchased the Skipworth Mill and renamed it the Globe Cotton Factory. Initially, the Globe produced skeins of yarn, which the company distributed to weaving mills to be woven into cloth. After a fire destroyed the structure in 1844, owner James Martin partnered with Samuel Weakley and Alexander Donelson Coffee and rebuilt the Globe Cotton Factory. This new factory both spun yarn and wove cloth. In 1850, the 95 workers in the mill came from locations including Maryland, New York, England, Tennessee, and, of course, Alabama – reflecting geographic mobility in the nineteenth century. On the eve of the Civil War, the mill had over 8,000 spindles and 140 looms, and processed 5000 bales of cotton a year. Burned by the Union Army in 1863, James Martin & Sons rebuilt the mill in 1868, naming the new mill Cypress Mill. A twelve-foot dam, the remains of which can still be seen today on the creek, was known as “Number Three Dam.” Eventually Colbert Mountain Mills of Barton, Alabama took over operation of the mill – and moved it to east Florence, where it became the Cherry Cotton Mill.

Cypress Creek Cotton Gin, Florence-Lauderdale Public Library Digital Archiv

Before the Civil War, the cotton used in the mills on Cypress Creek was likely grown by enslaved workers on plantations in Lauderdale and Franklin Counties – some of them right on the banks of the creek system itself. The Forks of Cypress was one such plantation. Located at the confluence of Cypress and Little Cypress Creeks, the plantation belonged to James Jackson, one of the founders of Florence. Enslaved workers, including the ancestors of writer Alex Haley (famous for his books Roots: The Saga of an American Family and Queen: The Story of an American Family), would have planted cotton on much of Jackson’s three thousand acres, as well as harvested and processed it. Jackson also raised racehorses along the banks of the creek. Many modern-day thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to the Forks of Cypress Plantation. After the Civil War, large landowners like the Jackson family switched to a system of tenant farming or sharecropping and continued to produce cotton.

The Civil War touched Cypress Creek in other ways as well. In 1862, the crew of the Confederate gunboat “Dunbar” traveled up Cypress Creek in order to escape Union gunboats. Unfortunately, the Dunbar got stuck on a sandbar and had to be abandoned – at least temporarily. Some sources suggest that Confederate forces managed to raise the boat and repair it in 1863.

Alabama is known for its torrential downpours and strong storms. Before the construction of the dams on the Tennessee River and the regulation of water levels (which also impacts water levels of creeks feeding into the river), these storms could lead to serious flooding problems. One such flood took place in 1902. Cypress Creek was between five and six feet above the highest flood level ever recorded. Sharps Mill, located on the creek to the northwest of Florence, sustained serious damage. According to the Florence Herald, pieces of the mill were seen rushing down Little Cypress.

While people have been enjoying the creek for thousands of years, in the more recent past, it has become a center of recreation in the Shoals. One of the most well-known of the events on the creek is the Great Cypress Creek Raft Race, which began in the late 1970s. The race – which in 1985, had 150 entries – included a raft constructed of two coffins with a mannequin’s legs sticking out and another that was actually a delivery truck! While the race isn’t a yearly event anymore, it has been revived a couple of times in recent years. There are also creek clean ups and sometimes even races where you get chased by pirates, so make sure you follow @muscleshoalsnha on Facebook and Instagram so you don’t miss out on the fun!