by Ellie Campbell
This Story was Edited by Ashley Deng
The rivers of Alabama are some of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. The state has more freshwater fish, turtle, crayfish, snail, and mussel species inhabiting its waterways than any other state in America. Alabama’s rivers are also some of the world’s most understudied ecosystems and in the first decade of the twenty-first century alone, 76 new species were discovered there. However, Alabama also has 90 known extinct species, the second highest number of any state, and is currently fourth in the nation for number of species in danger of extinction.
These facts are, for the most part, widely known. What few people know about, however, are the mermaids.
The Alabama Mermaid Conservatorship Association (AMCA) seeks permission and funding to further local creek reclamation by removing two dams that were damaged by flooding, along Little Tallaseehatchee Creek, located outside Jacksonville, Calhoun County, Alabama. This project has the ultimate goal of restoring the conditions of the Alabama mermaid habitat.
This document has been prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (42 U.S.C. § 4321 et. seq.), which requires that an environmental assessment (EA) be done to determine if any significant environmental impacts will occur as a result of any FEMA action or FEMA funded action.
The AMCA formed in 2005 with the goal of tracking mermaid populations in northeast Alabama. Founded by a group of local citizens working in conjunction with the biology department at nearby Jacksonville State University, the AMCA seeks to study, maintain, and rehabilitate local waterways to promote the renewal of the Alabama mermaid population. Inspired by a paper for an undergraduate local history class written by one of the founders, the AMCA recognizes the importance of the Alabama mermaid to the state’s history and seeks to promote knowledge of its existence.
The AMCA is pursuing a grant to demolish two dams along Little Tallaseehatchee Creek, which will restore conditions along the waterway to those more habitable by the mermaid species. The two dams were damaged by flooding during the 2011 tornado super outbreak. Though they are not currently at risk of failure, continued neglect may create unsafe conditions. While several local industrial farms have argued that the dams should be restored to protect their water interests, it is the belief of the AMCA that the dams should be safely removed in order to promote the return of the Alabama mermaid. To these ends, the AMCA has established the following history.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a number of dams on Little Tallaseehatchee Creek during 1936-1938, using Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds. Fed by natural freshwater springs, the creek is roughly 8 to 12 feet wide for most of its length, so the dams are not large. The construction was not meant to be permanent, but was rather done in preparation for building larger hydroelectric works on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Chattahoochee, and other rivers in the state. Many have washed out, but two dams remain along the Little Tallaseehatchee, resulting in two ponds which contain .2564 acre-feet or roughly 83,500 gallons of water. These do provide water for cattle operations but, as we are given to understand from the scant documentation provided by the Alabama Farmer’s Federation, possibly only a small percentage. The dams and ponds affect the creek and all the species in its surrounding environment, including the mermaids.
Alternately known as water sprites, mud pixies, catfish maidens, siren bream, or bluegill folk, Alabama mermaids average 6-12 inches, with the largest known specimen (caught, Robert Lee Travis, 1918, Choccolocco Creek) measuring approximately 26 inches long. Shy and retiring by nature, very few Alabama mermaids have actually been captured or examined in any detail. What we do know follows:
They are small and muddy in color. Their upper bodies are somewhat humanoid, with faces, arms, and hands with webbed fingers, while their lower halves resemble fish or aquatic snakes. They do not have scales, but rather skin, much like a catfish. They also have fairly prominent barbels, again like the catfish, resembling whiskers around the mouth. Females tend to be lighter in color, sometimes with a darker stripe running down the back. Mating season runs March-May. Their habitat is mostly shallow freshwater creeks and some lakes in northeastern Alabama, particularly the watershed regions of the southernmost Appalachian Mountains. Alabama mermaids have not, thus far, been found beyond the sandstone caprock region. They are omnivores, and their diet probably consists of a mix of minnows, aquatic insects, algae, and other organic material.
Though few people today know about the Alabama mermaid, its historical references were once numerous. The earliest European record of the Alabama mermaid is from Garcilaso de la Vega’s account of Hernando De Soto’s expedition throughout what is now the southeastern United States. Some historians have cast doubt on Garcilaso’s work, as he was not part of the expedition and relied on interviews with those who were, done many years later. Additionally, his descriptions of the Alabama mermaid bear a strong resemblance those of the aloja, water women from Catalan legends.
Alabama mermaids have long been a part of the mythology of the state. Though native to the region, they have been linked to other semi-mythological creatures from across the globe. Chickasaw and Choctaw cultures had stories about powerful water spirits; it is unclear if those have ties to, or were inspired by, what we now call the Alabama mermaid. Many of those tales were lost following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Stories about Alabama mermaids have been connected to tales of Mami Wata in African-American communities, originating in the western and southern regions of Africa.
The mermaids had a brief bout of fame in the late 19th century. Possibly inspired by P.T. Barnum’s “Fiji mermaid,” several traveling medicine shows displayed objects they referred to as Alabama mermaids, though most were taxidermied fish or papier-mache sculptures. One Alabama mermaid was displayed at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, though it is not clear from the historical record if it was real or a facsimile. An interracial Knights of Labor chapter in Oxford, Alabama adopted the creature as its mascot, as did a United Textile Workers chapter at the Dwight Cotton Mills in Gadsden. A pamphlet printed by the Knights claimed that the creatures’ hybrid nature represented the solidarity of working-class people in the iron and steel industry, while one of the textile workers was quoted in a local paper as saying that the mermaid “represents the toughness and spine that women need to fight for better wages.”
Mermaid sightings and references decline in the early to mid-20th century, due to a combination of increased urbanization and the degradation of Alabama’s river systems, as well as threats from a number of invasive species. A few WPA oral histories from the 1930s mention them, but otherwise the historical record is silent during this period. In Calhoun County, coal mining runoff in the Lenlock area, waste products from the pipe shops, and PCB pollution from the Monsanto plant led to a decline in all species in local waterways, as well as an increase in human cancer rates most noticeable in the west end of Anniston. While Choccolocco Creek was most heavily affected, Little Tallaseehatchee Creek did not escape damage.
In addition to the pollution, the dams constructed by the Corps of Engineers transformed part of the creek from fast-moving, shallow waterways to deep, quiet pools. Decline in mermaid populations may also be attributable to this loss of habitat, as the dams slow the flow of water, drop the temperature, and lower the oxygenation levels. According to an October 1968 interview in the Jacksonville News with Dr. James Williams, whose property bordered the creek, no fish or mermaids had been sighted there for over twenty-five years.
Fortunately, life began to return to Calhoun County’s creeks and rivers in the 1980s and 90s. Monsanto ceased production of PCBs in Anniston in the late 1960s, after knowledge of the chemical’s toxicity became more widely known. After decades of local organizing, over 30,000 plaintiffs won a court case against the company for its damage to community health, and the resulting settlement included funding for cleanup in the local waterways. Though the EPA has declined to designate the county a Superfund site, largely due to Monsanto’s pressure, the clean-up has seen some positive results. Additionally, Fort McClellan was closed in the late 1990s, which reduced the number of nearby construction projects. Dr. Mary Elba Marshall, a biology professor at Jacksonville State University, has tracked the return of fish populations in Little Tallaseehatchee Creek for the past several decades. Local fishermen, including her father, noticed a few cypress minnows returning to the creek in the early 1980s, and other species soon followed.
Unfortunately, there have not yet been any local sightings of the Alabama mermaid. They have been seen in parts of the Coosa River around Ohatchee and in the Choccolocco Creek watershed, but not yet in the Tallaseehatchee or Little Tallaseehatchee Creeks.
It is the belief of the AMCA that removing the two remaining Corps of Engineers dams and restoring Little Tallaseehatchee Creek to a habitat better suited to the Alabama mermaid is a worthy project. Contrary to the documentation provided by local industrial farming interests, AMCA’s research has shown that overall environmental impacts will be small. Short-term impacts will be moderate: the deeper pools created by the dams will lose volume, the flow will increase in speed, and the temperature of the water will rise a few degrees. The long-term impacts will be negligible and beneficial for species renewal. While the two ponds will disappear, the cattle farms have not demonstrated that they provide sufficient amounts of water to negatively impact their operations. Finally, the proposed action will have no significant adverse cumulative impacts on any other resource in the area. And while there has not yet been a sighting in this creek, the potential return after repairing the habitat should not be undervalued. Other waterways in Alabama have seen the return of the mermaid after restoration projects, and it is the hope of the AMCA that the same will be true of Little Tallaseehatchee Creek.
The story of the mermaid highlights terrible moments in Alabama’s history, from the knowledge lost to the Trail of Tears, to the exploitation of marginalized populations by circuses and showmen, to its adoption as a mascot by those fighting industrial powers for better work and wages, and the loss of its habitat to the ravages of chemical plants and military experiments. Restoring the mermaid’s habitat will not bring back what has been lost, not extinct species or human lives. But we should not value the profit margins of cattle farms above fighting for the health of our home. Alabama is more than the worst of what we have done to each other and to it. The diversity of its environment rivals that of any other place on the planet. Though the removal of two dams may be a small project, the AMCA has faith that this is a step in the right direction, a way to better value and preserve our state and the wide breadth of life that calls it home.
The AMCA humbly submits this assessment to FEMA for consideration.
© Copyright Ellie Campbell
Ellie Campbell lives in North Carolina with a lot of books and three cats, one of whom is also named Ellie. Her work has appeared with Wizards in Space Literary Magazine and Bone and Ink Press. She is originally from Anniston, Alabama. You can find her on Twitter @ecampbell535.
Read the Rest of the September Issue
- wildgirls by Cislyn Smith
- Seaside Princess by Jordan E. McNeil and Kat Weaver
- The Mermaid Speaks by Jose Luis Pablo
- Send Feet Pics by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas
- A Stone’s Throw from You by Jenn Reese
- Mermaids of Alabama: An Environmental Assessment by Ellie Campbell
- What Do Merfolk Notice on Land? by Priya Chand
- Puffin Queen by Jordan E. McNeil and Kat Weaver
- Witnessing by Tiffany Morris
- Beyond the Blue by Yuan Changming
- Selkie’s Bones by Marisca Pichette
- Mermaid Galleon by Alex Nodopaka
- A Mermaid Reports from Okeanos by Pat Tompkins
- Water Bites Back by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu
- Freshwater Life by Anne E.G. Nydam
- Mer Crowley Angel by Arrick Corble
- the hunter by Jasmine Arch
- I Swim Up From Below by Sarah Gailey
- The Siren’s Song by Angela Gabrielle Fabunan