Story By: Joshua Colquitt, Lauren Weathers, Michelle Zauzig
A small, yet busy town with the occasional saloon shooting and the constant yell of ‘All Aboard!’ from the local train station conductor may sound like a scene from an old western movie. Many would be surprised to hear this image once described the town of Opelika.
It is said that Oak Bowery, a settlement just north of Opelika, did not want the Montgomery to West Point line of the railroad to be built there for fear of the quality of its churches, academies and its plantation life. Instead the railroad went 10 miles south through the smaller town of Opelika.
City Engineer Walter Dorsey said, “Back in the late 1800’s, Opelika did not have a very good reputation, because it had a lot of saloons, for those who stopped through town, and because of other types of unsavory activity down by the railroad tracks. The train operators would encourage passengers to keep their heads below wood level, because they might be shot or risk being shot traveling through Opelika.”
Still, the train was a new form of freedom for people who had never been able to travel, a fairy-tale rocket ship for the children who grew up around it, and the primary transportation system of goods to and from Opelika. Long-time local Winston Smith T once reminisced about the glory of the train saying, “There was a mystique about it that nothing today approaches. The airlines with their brusque “cattle herding” techniques certainly don’t. To go to the depot in Opelika and buy a ticket to some far-away destination was the first leg in setting off on a romantic adventure into the distant unknown.”
Preservation of these stories is crucial now that memories surrounding the old station are fading. For this story, we had the opportunity to sit down with four Opelika natives who grew up with tracks and wailing whistles in their backyards: Warner Williams, Henry Stern, Stanley Melton & Bobby Huling.
From Left: Warner Williams, Henry Stern, Stanley Melton and Bobby Huling visit with CHP reporter Michelle Zauzig
They gave an account of how, during World War I, German prisoners of war were kept in Opelika. The men laughed, saying, for the time, the foreign soldiers almost ate better than the people of Opelika. The quaint town left such an impression that the families of five Germans soldiers returned, and their decedents still live in Opelika today. Locals used their best produce to make meals to send with the soldiers as they rode off on trains to uncertainty.
The train also took people to and from Auburn University football games on excursions called “War Eagle Specials.” In his account, Smith T said that Auburn lost more often than not in those days, but the rides home were still filled with spirit. The men also affirmed a commonly told story on Auburn’s campus. In 1896, a group of Auburn cadets snuck out of their dorms the night before the football game between Auburn and Georgia Tech and greased the railroad tracks. The train, which carried the Tech team and it’s fans, could not stop until it was halfway to the neighboring town of Loachapoka, Alabama. The disheveled and out-smarted team ended up losing to Auburn 45 to 0.
The Western line brought the famous Crescent sleeper car, the most sophisticated of the Southern Railroad, which ran between New York and New Orleans. Two of the men remembered sneaking off to New York City on a whim and returning with a night of raucous stories to tell. The train began a fascination with geography and opportunity for the young men and women it touched as it rolled though town. Even after all these years, there were more stories to tell than time in the day.
The train station developed and served the town of Opelika, and its significance and aesthetics have recently been revitalized. Dorsey said, “The depot had been closed and unused for many years by both railroad companies that have railroad tracks which passed through Opelika. We became aware in about 1991 that one of the railroad companies was going to tear the depot down. We literally, within days of that being done, and having some connections down in Montgomery, made some phone calls. We persuaded the legislative representatives of the railroad that we can do something to save it and to preserve it, and they finally decided not to tear it down. It has given a new, welcomed addition to our renovated downtown.”
Thankfully, there are written accounts of the impact of the railroad on the city and stories can still be found in the oral tradition of some of Opelika’s most cherished residents. In preserving the depot they preserved an important part of this Alabama city’s historical heritage. The last passenger train ran in 1971, but those who experienced it will never forget their first rides on the Opelika train. So next time you’re stuck at the railroad crossing, cursing the train for making you late for your next appointment, go back to the days when it first began to build the city you know and love today.
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