By Fred Woods
Opelika first appeared on a map in 1733. Shown on DeCranay’s map in that year it was spelled “Oppillaka.” The word reportedly meant “large swamp,” or “swampy place” in the Muskogee (what they called themselves)or Creek (what we called them) language.
First settled by Europeans in 1836 or 1837, Opelika’s post office was not authorized until 1840. Wesley Williams was named the first postmaster, his annual salary was $30.77 and the net proceeds of the office were $48.97. A Rev. Luke Mizell was among the first settlers. Mizell was so exemplary in his life and relationships with others that he won the esteem of both Indians and whites alike.
While making a survey for a railroad in 1848, two men, Charles Byrd and L.P Grant, saw possibilities for the development of a city from the little village of Opelika. Consequently they bought 160 acres of land, donating a lot for each of the major Protestant denominations to build a church.
Jack Holt built the first store in Opelika, a small wooden shack. David Watson was the first dry goods merchant.
Opelika was incorporated as a town on February 9, 1854. The Alabama legislature decreed that the town limits extended a mile in every direction from the Montgomery and West Point Railway station. In the first town election in March, Beverly Johnson was elected as the “intendant” or mayor of Opelika.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Cusseta with the Creek Indians in 1832, settlers began coming. Generally 1836 is credited as the arrival date for first pioneer families in this immediate area. These “first families” are recorded by the Alabama Archives and History Department as Williams, Mizell, Bullard, Cole, Bennett, Haley, Mangham, Tarver, Page and Green.
In 1837 Daniel Bullard, ancestor of Gen. Robert Lee Bullard, WWI hero, built Lebanon, the first church in the area about 1 1/2 miles south of the current city. In 1857 the church was moved into Opelika proper as what is now First United Methodist Church. It was moved to its present location in 1879 and the original building is now the sanctuary of that beautiful white church building at the corner of Ave. A and 7th St.
Opelika was incorporated as a part of Russell County. It became a part of Lee County when that County was created from portions of Chambers, Macon, Russell and Tallapoosa counties by act of the state legislature on December 15, 1866. This act did not specify a county seat. When a special election was called to select one, Auburn, Opelika and Salem vied for the honor. Opelika won over Salem, the runner-up, by one vote. The first Lee County courthouse was built in 1868 by the renowned Black bridge builder, artisan and freed slave, Horace King, on present day Ave. A.
Opelika was not always the serene, peaceful city we enjoy today. The post-Civil War period from the war’s end through the mid-1880s was one of extreme political discontent. High tax burdens, onerous debts and high interest rates led to frequent civil disturbance. Issuance of several city charters was interspersed with surrendering or having them taken away by the state. In the periods without charter governance was under martial law or, at least, under control of the governor.
Reportedly, conductors on trains would warn passengers before passing through Opelika to get on the floor of the coaches as some of the rowdier Opelikans liked to shoot out the train coach windows for sport. In November 1882, the Columbus Daily Enquirer reported on the deplorable conditions in Opelika, warning that political and economic ruin was inevitable if the situation was not resolved. It said that a large amount of the trade Opelika had drawn from the surrounding area was going to more peaceful places.
All the neighboring newspapers, including those as far away as New York City and Minneapolis carried unpleasant stories about Opelika’s conditions, referring to the “riots of the knights of the bar-room.” It was unsafe for people to travel the streets in buggies. Many of the traveling salesmen who had made Opelika their headquarters went elsewhere during this period.
All the town’s early history considered, it seems as though Opelika could have easily been the model for Hollywood’s wild western town before the marshall rode in on his horse to tame the town. Opelika didn’t get a marshall, instead they got the state militia.
In December, things finally came to a head. Two opposing slates of candidates each claimed victory in the city elections; the dispute led to gunfire, reportedly involving the police and up to 10 men were killed. The news was reported in newspapers all over the nation. This led to the immediate vacating of the city charter and martial law. Opelika was governed by a Police Board appointed by the governor until May 1, 1888, when Opelika was once again granted a charter. Apparently the lesson “took” because Opelika has been relatively peaceful ever since and has enjoyed general progress over the intervening years.
Despite the political upheavals and occasionally wild times, there was progress in other areas. In 1873, the first Fire Department was organized. In October 1877 the first street lamps were placed at the crossings of principal streets and, the next year, 16 additional lamps were placed at other prominent locations in the town. The first brick pavements replaced the old wooden pavements in the downtown area during 1886. Geneva Street became the first paved street, all the way from the First Baptist Church to its end, somewhere around today’s Story’s Market.
Early on, Opelika was well aware of the need for amusement, entertainment and culture. In May 1869, Gilbert’s Troupe of Dramatic Performers gave a series of performances in the local high school chapel. These proved so popular that Dunbar’s Opera House was constructed and opened. Then, in 1878, John Renfro and John Smith T opened another one which was also very popular. (This is the building formerly on the corner of South Railroad Ave. and N. 8th St. that collapsed several years ago.) In 1886 Opelika boasted more night entertainment than any other town of equal size in the state of Alabama.
Opelika began its quest to be a railroad town when the first rails arrived in 1848 as the Montgomery and West Point Rail Road Company extended its line to Opelika. The extension from Opelika to West Point was completed in 1851. Between 1851 and 1869, Opelika became a railroad crossroads with routes to West Point, Ga., Columbus, Ga. and Goodwater, Ala. A dummy line also operated between Opelika and Auburn from 1894-1899 and, later, between Opelika and LaFayette from 1899-1909. The railroad from Opelika to Birmingham was not completed until 1888. today’s Opelika still has trains, but the last passenger service was ended in January 1970.
The 1888 charter provided for a city government of a mayor and eight aldermen serving two-year terms. This form remained in place until 1936 when it was replaced by a three-person commission, elected at large, with the president of the commission serving as mayor. In October, 1986, the current mayor-five commissioner, with each commissioner representing a specific area, or ward, was adopted.
Other early firsts in Opelika history include the following: Opelika’s first and only street car, a prismoidal railroad, operated from 1873 to 1881, when it was abandoned. The first electric plant in Opelika began operations in 1890 and the first water works system opened in 1893. In December 1896, Opelika was selected as one of 10 U.S. post offices to test the first rural free delivery services (RFD). Carrier James T. Ross was paid a salary of $40 per month from which he had to feed his horse and maintain his buggy. The first Coca-Cola is bottled and distributed in Opelika by Columbus Roberts in 1902. And the first hospital in Opelika was started and operated in a home by a Miss Johnson in 1914.