The first white settlers in the area now known as Opelika arrived in the late 1830s and established a community called Lebenon. After the removal of the native peoples by force in 1836-37, the area became known as "Opelika", taken from a word in the Muskogee language meaning "large swamp". Settlement was sporadic until the late 1840s, when Opelika quickly became a commercial center with the coming of the railroad.
In 1848, the Montgomery & West Point Railroad Company extended a rail line from Montgomery, Alabama to Opelika, and in 1851 completed a connection to West Point, Georgia, thus connecting Opelika with Atlanta, Georgia. This line was the only direct rail route between New Orleans and the Eastern Seaboard, and rapidly became one of the primary trade lines for shipments of raw cotton from Southern plantations to the North. The Montgomery & West Point was soon joined by a rail connection to Columbus, Georgia in 1855, and a connection to Birmingham, Alabama in 1869. Almost overnight, Opelika became a regional hub for commerce.
To manage this rapid growth, Opelika was incorporated as a town on February 9, 1854. As a result of Opelika's transportation infrastructure, many warehouses for storing cotton and other goods were built. With the onset of the Civil War these warehouses were converted to Confederate supply depots. In 1864 and 1865, Union raids commanded by Lovell Rousseau and James H. Wilson attacked Opelika, tearing up the railroads and destroying all government property, including Opelika's warehouses.
Soon after the end of the war, the Alabama state legislature created a new county out of parts of Macon, Russell, Chambers, and Tallapoosa counties to be named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In 1866, citizens of the new "Lee County" voted Opelika as the county seat, despite the fact that Opelika was technically unincorporated after having its charter revoked for abetting the rebellion against the United States.
After Opelika received a new charter in 1870, rapid growth resumed. The town nearly doubled in size between 1870 and 1900. During this time, Opelika began to gain a reputation as a wild, lawless town. Soon after receiving the new charter, city officials attempted to scam outside investors by issuing fake railroad bonds. For this, the town's charter was revoked again in 1872, and the town was administered as a police district by the state legislature for the following year. Opelika's downtown was packed with saloons, and frequent gunfire in the streets led to railroads ordering passengers passing through Opelika to duck beneath the windows to avoid being shot.
In 1882, voters dismissed the incumbent city government. Unwilling to give up power, the city council nullified the election until the courts ruled against them. When the state yet again revoked Opelika's charter, the city leaders took up arms against those that opposed them, and the governor was forced to send in the militia to restore order. Opelika remained under unelected military rule for the sixteen years until 1899, when Opelika's charter was again restored.
In 1900, local investors founded the Opelika Cotton Mill as the first textile plant in the city, employing 125. Attempts to expand the textile industry in Opelika continued for the next three decades, and in 1925 city officials were able to use a $62,500 bribe to induce the executives of the Pepperell Manufacturing Co. (now WestPoint International) to construct a large mill just outside of the Opelika city limits. The period between 1930 and 1970 would turn out to be Opelika's heyday as industrial growth turned Opelika into a regional economic powerhouse.
Opelika continued to add factories and other industry throughout the middle years of the 20th century. In the 1950s, Opelika attracted the nation's first and largest magnetic tape manufacturing plant. In 1963, tire manufacturer Uniroyal constructed a massive plant in Opelika, and around the same time Diversified Products revolutionized the physical fitness equipment industry with products produced their Opelika plant. By the early 1970s, Opelika's industries employed nearly 10,000.
Between the late 1970s and 2005, non-agricultural employment in the Auburn-Opelika, AL MSA grew at a slow and steady pace. Of the goods producing industries, the metropolitan area has experienced the most change in manufacturing, peaking in the late 1980s with declining employment since then. This trend appears to be changing, however, as the number of manufacturing jobs has risen steadily since 2002.
In the late 1990s, Opelika sought to increase its industrial employment base by purchasing and developing the Northeast Opelika Industrial Park.
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