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Trip Report Changeless Montgomery, Alabama

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Bachslunch wrote a trip report about a visit to Montgomery in the spring of 2009. (http://www.fodors.com/community/united-states/trip-report-montgomery-alabama.cfm)

I visited on a recent day trip with several family members and found that not much has changed in the past two years. The downtown area was pretty deserted (maybe because it was Monday, maybe because it was summer, maybe because it was hot and humid), but not run down - in fact, it was pretty neat and clean for being so deserted.

We drove, so there was no problem accessing downtown from the Interstate. If you drive, your first stop should be the Montgomery Convention and Visitor Bureau (http://visitingmontgomery.com/) at 300 Water Street. You can obtain a free parking pass that allows you to park on Dexter Avenue, across from the Capitol and the Dexter Avenue-King Memorial Baptist Church (it's good all day). The CVB is also worth seeing if you like architecture, as it is in the restored 1898 Union Station (which has one of the few Victorian-era train sheds left in the US).

Like bachslunch, I found the Capitol (http://www.preserveala.org/capitol.aspx) to be rather plain, although as a native Southerner perhaps more interesting. Considering when it was built (1850-51) and its Civil War significance, the lack of exuberant Victorian decoration is not surprising. As for the murals in the rotunda, we were pleasantly surprised that my nephew recognized one of them -- the surrender of the Creek chieftain William Weatherford to Andrew Jackson -- from his history lessons (without even reading the caption!). Tours are self-guided Monday-Friday, Guided tours are available on Saturdays.

After visiting the Capitol, we walked across Washington Avenue to the Alabama Department of Archives and History (free admission; http://www.archives.alabama.gov/). Construction work on new exhibit space was underway, so what was on view was limited (we were told the new exhibits will be spectacular when they open; should have been open already, but they are behind schedule). We did get to see the display of Civil War-era memorabilia that included the Bible with which Alabama governors are sworn in (Jefferson Davis used it as well when he was sworn in as Confederate President), a slave collar that William T. King made his slaves wear when they went to town to conduct business for him (so they would not be mistaken for runaways - or tempted to run away themselves; very sobering), "the sword that ended the war" (the Confederates' surrender flag was carried on its tip at Appomattox), and a chamber pot with Union Gen. Benjamin Butler's picture in the bowl (an expression of contempt at his treatment of women during his command of Union-occupied New Orleans).

From the Archives we continued to the adjacent First White House of the Confederacy (free admission; http://www.firstwhitehouse.org/). It too was interesting, although a bit "over the top" for me in its veneration of Jefferson Davis. The house itself and its furnishings (most of which belonged to the Davis family or were in the house when they lived there) are beautiful. Some of the items on display are quite significant (such as the quilt that was raffled multiple times to raise money for a Confederate gunboat), others are pretty quirky (a rosary made for their daughter - out of her hair! - by Mrs. Davis), and some are both (dried flowers taken from the graves of Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson).

From the White House we crossed back over Washington Avenue to the Alabama State House to see the actual chambers used by the legislature. We too found it odd that the elevator does not go all the way to the Senate gallery. And I agree with bachslunch about the appearance - this is probably the most boring legislative building I have visited.

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    From the State House we walked back to our car through the Capitol grounds. As it had started raining when we were inside the Capitol a coupe of hours earlier and still had not let up through all our touring, we did not linger on the grounds except to stop at the Flame of Freedom honoring Alabama's war veterans. We did not view any of the other monuments on the grounds.

    We had brought a picnic lunch to eat and were torn between eating it in the car and driving over to The Farmer's Market Cafe (315 N. McDonough Street - really close enough to walk except for the rain; http://www.mgm4lunch.com/farmers_market_cafe.htm). In the end, the picnic in the car won, although the Cafe had gotten positive comments when we mentioned it to people as a possibility for lunch.

    After lunch, we drove over to the Civil Rights Memorial Center (400 Washington Avenue; http://www.splcenter.org/civil-rights-memorial). Again, it was close enough to walk, but we decided to drive because it was still raining. Parking is harder to find close to it, although we did manage to snag a free space on a side street. The memorial fountain is free. The center has a $2 admission fee for adults (free for children). Basically, that gets you a 20-minute movie that explains the significance of the names and events on the fountain outside - so it was valuable in that respect, but that's all you get for your $2 (a couple of sparse exhibits that didn't do much for me were also inside). Many of the names and events were familiar to me, but for others it was the first time I had ever heard about them.

    When we came outside to view the memorial, it had stopped raining, so afterward I convinced everyone to walk down to the Court Square Fountain several blocks away. The fountain is built over one of the city's artesian wells and is located at the intersection of the main streets of the two villages that merged to form Montgomery.

    Along our walk down Washington Avenue and back up Dexter Avenue we passed several historical markers, including those in front of the office of the "Father of Modern Gynecology" (in the 19th century), beside the building from which the order to attack Fort Sumter was telegraphed, and at the site of the bus stop from which Rosa Parks embarked on her ride into the history books.

    Note: Thunderstorms followed by bright sunshine produce hot and steamy walking conditions (as if I didn't know that already - LOL). I was soundly berated for "forcing" my family members on the arduous walk under such brutal conditions. And it WAS hot and humid, so I was glad we had extra cold drinks in the car back at the Civil Rights Memorial.

    That meant, however, that everybody (else) was "toured out" at this point, so we did not visit the Dexter Avenue Church or any of the other points of interest downtown. Maybe we will go back one day to see those.

    All in all, I enjoyed the trip very much. I think the combination of Civil War and Civil Rights sites makes for a fascinating look at this unfortunate part of our nation's history. Montgomery might not be a destination in and of itself, but it definitely is worth at least a day trip if you are within a couple of hours of it (we were about 3 hours away).

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    Cranachin, enjoyed your trip report -- glad my earlier write-up was of some use here.

    If you come back to the city, definitely take in the Rosa Parks Museum, which is an eye-opener and a real must. I found the Dexter Church interesting as well, more for its place in local history, less in and of itself -- and definitely call ahead, as hours can be erratic there.

    Understand completely about being "museum-ed out," though -- it doesn't usually happen to me, but it often afflicts those who travel with me (I'm a really voracious sightseer).

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    Cranachin,

    I very much enjoyed this report. Your experience at the First White House of the Confederacy reminded me of a trip to Richmond's White House of the Confederacy where the tour guide at one point referred to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression and seemed no fan of Abraham Lincoln. He'd wink as he'd say these things, but I never was entirely certain how serious he was.

    I find it's so true about cities, deserted sometimes equals neglected but sometimes I find deserted CAN equal neat & clean (none of those pesky creatures called human beings to litter!), depends on the city.

    Sorry about the weather, but glad you folks seemed to have had a good time! Daniel

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    bachslunch - Museum fatigue often afflicts those who travel with me as well, as I am the "read every sign and placard" type. I was hoping to visit the Rosa Parks museum, but it turned out to be for the best that we left when we did (around 3:30-4:00), as we were able to do an errand before we got home that would have been harder to do the next day.

    Daniel - I was in Richmond a year ago on business and went downtown on Saturday. It was pretty deserted then! I have been to the capitol there (on a trip many years ago) but not any of the museums. As for the rain - they really needed it, so kind of hard to be grumpy about it.

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