Riding the rails of history: Honoring Opelika’s railroad town heritage

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By Winston Smith T*

Opelika Observer

*Editor’s note: Winston Smith T, father of Dozier, grandfather to his current namesake and brother to Joanne, died in 2007. He loved to study and write about local history. His family has graciously allowed us to reproduce his articles from time to time.

The slogan, “Opelika, an old railroad town,” may be of recent vintage, but it is certainly accurate. Opelika owes its existence – and early growth – to the railroad.

A story of indeterminate origin says Oak Bowery, the toniest settlement in these parts back then, snubbed the new railroad being built in the 1850s between Montgomery and West Point, fearing the effect it would have on that refined community of churches, academies and plantation life.

The rail line bypassed Oak Bowery some 10 miles to the south and came straight through the smaller, poorer and much more obscure little village of Opelika.

The routing of the railroad through Opelika was the beginning of the end for Oak Bowery, an excellent example of the adage, “be careful what you pray for; you just might get it.” It also spelled the end of Mt. Jefferson, a once-thriving town some five miles north of Opelika, where residents also thought the railroad line would locate.

But what really put Opelika on the map was the construction of a second line between Columbus, Ga., and Opelika. So, even before the Civil War, Opelika had become a railroad junction point.

Opelika’s prominence as a rail center caused Gen. Sherman, who was pressing down from Chattanooga, Tenn., toward Atlanta, Ga., to order Gen. Rousseau to descend from north Alabama in a calvary raid and destroy the railroad between Opelika and Loachapoka.

Rousseau was also charged with burning supplies and rolling stock, located mainly in Opelika, destined for the Confederate defense of Atlanta, Ga. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the raid was a huge success.

The extension of the Opelika-Columbus track northward began after the Civil War. It did not reach Birmingham until 1888.

The line was then known as the Columbus and Western Railway. It was not until 1895 that the Central of Georgia Railroad acquired this line. Today the tracks of the Central of Georgia have been merged into the Norfolk and Southern system. The old Western of Alabama line is now part of the CSX system.

The rail line that separates North Railroad Avenue from South Railroad Avenue was the Western of Alabama. It ran from Montgomery to West Point and continued on to Atlanta but under a different route name. Over there it was the Atlanta and West Point Railroad, sometimes called the “West Point Route.”

Today the entire route is known as Norfolk Southern.

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