Athens is a city in Limestone County, in the State of Alabama. As of the2010 census, the population of the city is 21,897. The city is the county seatof Limestone County and is included in the Huntsville-Decatur Combined Statistical Area.
Founded in 1818 by John Coffee, Robert Beaty, John D. Carroll, and John Read, Athens is one of the oldest incorporated cities in the State ofAlabama, having been incorporated one year prior to the state's admittance to the Union in 1819. Limestone County was also created by an act of theAlabama Territorial Legislature in 1818. The town was first called Athenson, then the name was then shortened to Athens, after the ancient city in Greece. The town's first mayor was Samuel Tanner, and the Tanner area, south of Athens, was named on his behalf.
The Athens area was the home of William Wyatt Bibb, the first Governor of Alabama, and of its second Governor, his brother Thomas Bibb, who succeeded him in office when he died in a fall from his horse.
In 1822, local residents purchased 5 acres (20,000 m2) of land and built a building to house the Athens Female Academy. The school became affiliated with the Methodist church in 1842, and was eventually renamed Athens Female College. After becoming coeducational in 1932, the school changed its name again to Athens College. After being taken over by the State of Alabama in 1974, the college was converted to a “reverse junior college,” offering the last two years of instruction for graduates of area community colleges. It is today known asAthens State University.
Many homes in the central part of modern Athens date to the antebellum period, and are part of historic preservation districts.
On May 2, 1862, during the Civil War, Athens was seized by Union forces under the command of Col. John Basil Turchin, a Russian émigré. After occupying the town, Turchin assembled his men and told them: "I shut my eyes for two hours. I see nothing." Business were hit first, and anything of value that could be carried away were looted and anything that could not be was simply destroyed. After rampaging through stores the soldiers plundered private homes. A slave girl was raped. The soldiers also attempted to rape a servant girl. The violent behavior of the soldiers caused a pregnant woman to suffer a miscarriage and die. The townpeople estimated the damage to be fifty-five thousand dollars. The resulting pillage and plunder came to be known as the Rape of Athens.
Athens was the home of Governor George S. Houston, Alabama’s first post-Reconstruction Democratic governor served from 1874 through 1878. Houston was noted for reducing the debts incurred to benefit private railroad speculators and others by his Reconstruction Republican predecessors. During Reconstruction, Athens was the home of the Trinity School, a school founded for the children of former slaves by the American Missionary Association.
Athens was traditionally a cotton and railroad town, but since the local aerospace boom of the 1950s and 1960s it has increasingly entered the orbit of nearby industry center Huntsville as the area's cotton production has steadily declined.
In 1934, Athens became the first city to get its electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Athens is the home of Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant, a Tennessee Valley Authority installation first operated in 1974, that was once the world's largestnuclear plant. It provides many jobs to the area and most of the electricity for the Huntsville-Decatur Metro Area. On March 22, 1975, the Browns Ferry plant became the scene of what was, with the exception of the Three Mile Island accident, the most serious nuclear accident in United States history. A worker using a candle to check for air leaks started a fire among control wires, causing a temporary threat to operational control of the reactor (see Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant article on Unit One Fire).
Athens is midway between Nashville and Birmingham on Interstate 65. Athens shares a boundary with Huntsville.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 39.4 square miles (102 km2), of which 39.3 square miles (102 km2) is land and 0.1 square miles (0.26 km2) (0.23%) is water.