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The Legend of Dread River

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Legend has it that an underground river flows beneath the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Native Americans allegedly told early settlers of traveling by canoe, charting miles of subterranean waters. In 1884—thirteen years after the city’s incorporation and during the steel boom that attracted a seemingly overnight metropolitan populace, earning it the nickname the “Magic City”—curious explorers and adventure-seekers reported sightings of the underground body of water.

Leaders of the city hired Professor Joseph Mulhatton—listed in reports as a great scientist, cave expert, and traveling salesman—who explored the underground caverns and returned with descriptions of a 300-foot-wide river, 45 to 70 feet deep, a natural ship canal to the Gulf of Mexico. He reported that the channel of crystalline waters held “eyeless fish and eyeless sea monsters of the shark species” as well as “eyeless amphibious animals of the alligator and reptile tribe”; articles of bronze, statuary, masonic emblems, and even perfectly preserved mummies; not to mention the remains of the “Ichthyosaurus,” an extinct marine monster of the Old Red Sandstone Period. Harmless and docile, yet incredibly powerful, these sea monsters were harnessed to ships laden with pig iron and used to drag the marine vessels to sea. The prehistoric race that flourished under this system of metal transportation, Mulhatton claimed, existed in Birmingham as exhibited by the ruins of ancient sun temples found throughout the county.

Mulhatton called the discovery of the Magic City’s subterranean river “undoubtedly the most remarkable discovery ever made on the American continent” and Birmingham leaders proclaimed: This discovery is of paramount importance to Birmingham, to Alabama, and to the entire scientific world and is worthy of the greatest enthusiasm.

By the early 20th Century, Mulhatton’s credibility had been decimated by the absurdity of his outrageous tales, regularly recounted in newspapers: discoveries of monkeys trained to pick hemp, cacti that could magnetically attract the human body, the petrified body of George Washington … “to lie like a Mulhatton” became indicative of his particular brand of snake-oil salesmanship. To this day, the Museum of Hoaxes website classifies Mulhatton as “perhaps the most famous hoaxer in America,” saying the media of his day even called him the "Liar-Laureate of the World.”

Despite the con-artistry of Mulhatton, wild excitement was piqued among the citydwellers. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s records show rumors of tickets being sold from clandestine locations, offering guided riverboat excursions from the surface down to the “Mystic Underground River.” In fact, a poem was penned about the river:

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August 21, 1884

We’ll lily-float

In fairy boat

Where moonbeams never quiver.

We’ll pull an oar

To foreign shore

Down on the Mystic River.

Our bank canoe

Far out of view

Shall sail where mortals quiver,

And feel a chill

Their marrow fill

Down on the Mystic River.

Who shall know

To where you go

Most any man would give a

Few days more

Once to explore

Thy course, o’ Mystic River.

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Years later, another account tells of a pair of adventurous boys who drifted under the city in a makeshift boat, listening to the fiery growls of steel furnaces and the grumbles and hisses of trains in the city above. Some accounts say the boys discovered a counterfeiting operation, some say they perished in their dangerous pursuits, and some say they fell asleep—awaking as they emerged into the Warrior River nearly 50 miles away. One of their mothers spoke of the saga to reporters and called the covert current the “Dread River.”

From a geological standpoint, Alabama’s signature limestone, a soft rock that slowly erodes in water, is a key component of the local karst landscape, which is characterized by sinkholes, caves, and underground streams. Water travels from the surface through the soluble stone and into the earth, sometimes for long distances. This water is then discharged from springs, many of which are also cave entrances. Kentucky, which shares a karst landscape similar to Alabama’s, boasts that their limestone-filtered water is an essential ingredient to Kentucky bourbon’s excellent flavor. (We agree; our local limestone-filtered water takes our bourbon to the next level too.)

So it’s unsurprising to learn that this underground system flowing with pristine limestone-filtered water was the perfect playground for moonshiners’ undercover exploits. Historical accounts and hearsay of Prohibition-era’s subterranean speakeasies and even modern-day “secret hangouts” deep in the caverns of Alabama are widespread … archeologists, surveyors, and recreational cavers, among others, still meet to explore the underbelly of Birmingham and sometimes stop by the distillery, excited to share that they’ve seen the “Dread River” with their own eyes. Others are skeptical.

But whether the stories are true or not—these tales have certainly delighted curious minds and stirred imaginations, inspiring exploration and adventure.

The Legend of the Dread River may have even prompted some of Alabama’s original distillers and barkeeps to venture into the underground channels of clear limestone water to distill their own spirits and set up their own speakeasies, Birmingham’s original watering holes “founded in the Spirit of Adventure”—as our labels say—all inspired by the might and mystery of the Dread River.

~ Researched and Written by Lauren Helmer