Five miles west of the City of Gadsden is the thriving little City of Attalla. It was named by Chief Little Will and spelled Atali, meaning "my home." It was also the site of an Indian village. Attalla, earlier known as the Junction, was settled as a crossroads for the railroad traffic in the area. Known also for a short time as Bainsville, the town has also been known as Newton.
The first white settler in 1800 was John Ratliffe (Ratcliffe).
In 1819 a post office was established near the Lake Rhea area in the home of a man named Bennett. In 1849 a map lists Bennettsville as approximately where the Richard Stephens home was later and near the current location of the Mack Whorton home.
It is situated right in the middle of the mineral wealth of the county. In 1849, there was a stage coach line, store, post office and justice of the peace office. Attalla is part of the old Strother Road. Jackson Trail passed from Gunter's Landing to Ft. Strother on Ten Island in the Coosa River below what is now Greensport, a former steamboat landing.
The first church was Presbyterian, established in 1851 when the town was called Newton. It was located in the 800 block of N. Fifth Street.
John S. Moragne arrived in 1830 and sank the first iron ore mine in northeastern Alabama in 1859. He owned the first saloon and became the first Probate Judge of Etowah County. In these early days, Attalla was known as a mining town but the mines all closed in 1922-23.
Attalla, in 1866 known as the Junction, changed its name to Bainsville in an attempt to become the county seat. Gadsden, however, was chosen as the seat of government in a special election.
In 1870, Attalla was founded on land donated by plantation owner, W.C. Hammond, and a post office established. The town was incorporated February 5, 1872. Allen Gray was appointed postmaster (1889-1893) by President Benjamin Harrison. Star route mail service was established in Etowah County and carried by horseback from Attalla through Howelton, Red Bud, Walnut Grove, Balm, Murphree Valley, Lowery to Oneonta. In 1872 Attalla had about 300 inhabitants, and was already on the railroad.
The first school was held in a church around 1860. After the town was incorporated, the Hudson and Clements Schools were established.
Judge Henry W. Pickens, an early postmaster, donated land to build churches and schools. In 1882 an Attalla College is mentioned. The Hughes family, who owned and operated a brick plant, a cotton compress, and a lumber business donated land for a school. The Etowah High School on South Fourth Street was completed in 1910.
E.I. Holcombe, the first mayor of Attalla, owned a saloon at the current site of the Gazebo. He lived in a two-story house between the current water department and Ferguson's Florist on N. Fourth Street, a short distance from his business.
The town was partially destroyed by fire in 1887. The frame buildings were replaced by brick. Attalla had no water works and depended on a fire brigade. Another fire in 1891 which destroyed most of the city caused immediate action toward a water works within its limits.
The first bank, the Bank of Attalla, was built by C.D. Henley and is now the location of South Trust.
This little city, like many other towns in the mineral belt, for a number of years has relied on agriculture for its support. Attalla has awakened from its slumber, and its enterprising citizens are now bending their energies toward the development of her great mineral wealth. Her population is (in 1888) increasing very rapidly, and it numbers now over 1,200.
The city has two newspapers, the New Age, published and edited by A.G. Lee, and the Attalla Herald, published and edited by T.J. Watkins. Both of these papers are Democratic in politics, and are working for the development and prosperity of Attalla and Etowah County. The first newspaper in Attalla, the Union Republic, was published on May 20, 1870 with P.J. Smith as editor.
By 1890, Attalla was improving rapidly. Several furnaces, which were in process of erection, would soon be converting the iron ores around her doors into merchantable pig-iron.
In later years, Attalla became a rail center with 22 passenger trains enter or leaving each day. It was the third largest railroad center in Alabama. Its present railroad facilities are superior to those of Gadsden. It is immediately on the line of the great Queen & Crescent Route. which is one of the finest and longest railroad lines in the South. Besides the Queen & Crescent Route, Attalla has all the other railroads of the county centering and crossing there. The Anniston & Cincinnati Railroad, the Rome & Decatur, and the Tennessee & Coosa Railroads, all center in Attalla. The four railroads at Attalla, handle and run thirty-six freight trains daily on schedule, with a number of extras and double headers, besides the freight cars handled over the Attalla, Alabama City and Gadsden Electric Railway.
The first policeman, Drew Dillard, was hired around 1894. Policemen in 1899 were: Charles L. Burke and Pete Gorman.
Attalla is largely engaged in the mercantile business, besides mining large quantities of iron ore, which is shipped to farmers in Tennessee and Georgia.
Attalla was the home of the first hydroelectric dam to produce electricity in the state. The dam was built by Captain W.P. Lay about 1902. In 1904 the city awarded him a contract to light the town with his electric lights. In 1906, Captain Lay organized the Alabama Power Company in Attalla.
The general society of this little city is very good, having excellent churches and fine schools. The location of Attalla is indeed fine and attractive, being surrounded on two sides by high hills, with two beautiful valleys coming together right above it.
Etowah County Heritage Book Committee, The Heritage of Etowah County, Alabama. Clinton, AL: Heritage Publishing Consultants, Inc., c. 1999.
McCalley, Henry, Northern Alabama : historical and biographical. Birmingham, AL: Smith & DeLand, 1888, pp. 835.