Opelika Railroads and Textile Industry
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The above familiar image, as seen here in 1954, is the railroad crossing at Eightth Street.  The railroad was very improtant in the growth of Opelika.

Celebrating Opelika's Past


Winston Smith T

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

A story of indeterminate origin says that 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.

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 to burn supplies and rolling stock, located mainly in Opelika, destined for the Confederate defense in Atlanta.  Unfortunately for the South, 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 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 went from Montgomery to West Point and continued on into Atlanta, but under a different rout name.  It was the Atlanta and West point Railroad, sometimes called the “West Point Route.”

Just before the turn of the century Opelika had two different “dummy lines.” A small portion of one of the dummy lines is still visible across from Northside School.

Several types of trains came through Opelika, including at least four first class sleeper trains.  Local trains that traveled back and forth between Atlanta and Montgomery and between Columbus and Birmingham.



Winston Smith T

In the early 1920s, industrial development was unknown as organized endeavor and nowhere in Alabama did there exist a group seeking new manufacturing payrolls from the heavily industrialized East and Midwest.

Seeking customers for its electrical output, Alabama Power Company organized what was then called the ‘New Industries Division’ but which eventually would become the Industrial Development Department.

Because Alabama was one of the top cotton producers in the nation, it was decided that the initial primary thrust for new industry would be made in New England where the textile industry was concentrated.  As far as is known, the first industry to be located in Alabama as a result of this effort was Pepperell Mills in Opelika.

Tom Johnson, a native of Dale County, was assigned to the New Industries Division of the Alabama Power Company.

In March, 1924, Johnson was preparing to leave Boston after several weeks of trying to develop interest in Alabama.

Discouraged by his lack of success, he paid a Saturday morning visit to Russell Leonard, who was at that time Treasurer of Pepperell Mills, to say good-bye.  Johnson states that Leonard at first scolded him for calling on him on a Saturday morning, but then told him to return to his hotel as he was coming over for lunch.

After lunch, Leonard informed Johnson that Pepperell Mills was going to build a 20,000 square foot spindle mill in Opelika, if a site could be obtained and if the residents would subscribe to $37,000 of Pepperell Mills preferred stock.

The next week, Leonard, along with a Pepperell Mills attorney and engineer spent four days in Opelika endeavoring to work out what today would be considered a very minor proposition.

In contrast to the excellent cooperation provided today by most local officials, who welcome Industry with open arms, Opelika officials were beset by suspicion, cliques, jealousies, even hatred.  There was no unity, no pulling together.

Finally, Leonard and the Pepperell Mills attorney and engineer gave up on Opelika and departed for Birmingham.  They had planned to go to Gadsden the next morning where they knew they could close a deal promptly.

Shortly after their arrival at the Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham, there was a call from Ike Dorsey of Opelika.  He reported that 40 of the town’s leading citizens had met at the home of Will Davis and had a prayer meeting that resulted in a change of heart and the desire to proceed with the Pepperell Mills proposal.  The rest is history.


Winston Smith T, the “Town Scribe”, wrote the above two articles specifically for the Sesquicentennial celebration in 2004.  The full accounting of “Opelika Railroads” and “Rousseau’s Raid” can be found by going to: Opelika Town Scribe

Additional information on the Pepperell Village can be found by going to: Pepperell Village

Return to: Opelika History