GADSDEN, AL | March 9, 2016 | Nestled in the city of Gadsden, Alabama, are 250 acres of land. Within this land, there is a 90-foot waterfall of natural running water. At the top of this waterfall, a faded bronze statue of an Indian princess stands, posed to jump to her death.
This is Noccalula Falls Park.
“To me, it’s a tragic love story,” Administrative Supervisor Janet Tarrance said of the legend surrounding Princess Noccalula.
According to Tarrance, Princess Noccalula was the daughter of an Indian Cherokee tribe chief. The Cherokee tribe once lived in the area that is now Gadsden. Tarrance said that Noccalula’s father promised her to a member of the Creek Indian tribe in exchange for peace.
Although Noccalula was in love with someone from her own tribe, she still went through with the wedding plans. The food was prepared, the guests were ready and Noccalula even put on her dress.
“But instead of walking down the aisle, she went over the falls,” Tarrance said. “To me, it’s just really sad but at the same time, she died for love. She believed in and wanted her own thing and unfortunately took her own life.”
Tarrance works in the Kiwanis Pavilion near the main entrance of the park. The window in her office faces the playground surrounded by chain-link fences. Bright neon plastic slides and houses fill the scene. Faint shouts, shrieks, and bursts of laughter can be heard from inside the office.
Only a few yards to the left of the playground is the waterfall. The statue and running water are fenced off for visitors’ safety. The water flows into a deep gorge surrounded by caves, which is accessible to guests via a trail.
Tarrance said that while most people come to Noccalula Falls Park to see the statue and learn the legend, the park is so much more than just a waterfall. There are also walking trails, a miniature train, pioneer cabins, a petting zoo and even a caged lion.
Ellen Dunn, a train driver for the park, got especially excited about the lion during an afternoon ride.
“That’s Sheila,” Dunn said, pulling the train to a stop, its motor rumbling quietly. She pointed to a golden lion perched inside a double chain-link fence. “We’ve had her for 12 years.”
Dunn said she’s lived in the Gadsden area all her life. She began working for the park six years ago.
“The area is so beautiful, you can almost see the history when you think about what’s going on,” Dunn said.
Dunn said one of her favorite parts about her job is seeing the children’s faces light up when they ride the train during the Christmas season.
Tarrance said Christmas At The Falls is the park’s most popular event. This event typically starts in November and offers everything from a Santa workshop to a Christmas-themed gift store to a cookie-decorating station. And, of course, the lights.
“We start putting up lights in September all the way up until Thanksgiving Day,” Tarrance said. “And even after that is over we’re still like, ‘Oh we see a dead spot, we need to put lights there.’”
Tarrance said that when people ask what company she uses to decorate the park they are surprised to learn that the park staff handles events themselves. Tarrance said there are about 20 to 25 staff members who decorate.
“We all love our jobs,” Tarrance said of her staff. “Our little slogan is ‘We work hard so you can play.’”
Not all events are as heavily planned as Christmas At The Falls. Tarrance spent the morning of the interview helping prepare the Kiwanis gazebo for a last minute Arbor Day event. Tarrance said she and her staff were told about the event just one week before.
People began trickling into the gazebo around noon for Arbor Day. They formed lines along the right side of a long row of wooden benches. Park staff members stood on the left side and gave out tree saplings. Tarrance said a few of the trees they had were bald cypress, crepe myrtle and river birch.
The smell of barbecue wafted into the gazebo as someone grilled nearby. A mother and her two daughters sold Girl Scout cookies near the entrance. A light breeze rustled the leaves of trees and bushes. In the distance, people stood by the statue of Princess Noccalula, leaning over the guardrail to read the plaque that tells her story.
A local resident, Brianna Lowe, eventually approached Dunn at the end of the line. Lowe held her young daughter, Vivien, as Dunn handed them a few saplings. Another staff member leaned in to tell Lowe that the trees were each one-year-old today.
“Vivien is one today,” Lowe replied with a smile. “That’s kind of one of the reasons we came, to get a tree to plant on her birthday. They’ll [the saplings] be the same age as her!”
Like Tarrance said, there is so much more to the park than the waterfall. Princess Noccalula’s story may draw in tourists, but small events like Arbor Day bring in the local community.
Noccalula Falls Park is more than meets the eye. For one-year-old Vivien Lowe, it is where her mother found the tree that will grow up with her. It is a place where memories are made.