Opelika is a city in and the county seat of Lee County in the east central part of the State of Alabama. It is a principal city of the Auburn-Opelika Metropolitan Area. According to the 2013 Census Estimate, the population of Opelika was 28,635.
The first white settlers in the area now known as Opelika arrived in the late 1830s and established a community called Lebanon. After the removal of the native Creek (Muscogee) peoples by federal troops in 1836-37, the area became known as “Opelika.” This word taken from the Muskogee language means “large swamp”. Settlement was sporadic until the late 1840s, when the railroad reached the town. This stimulated development of Opelika as a commercial center.
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. It 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.
Soon after the end of the Civil 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. The town was technically unincorporated after having its charter revoked for abetting the rebellion against the United States.
After Opelika received a new charter 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 For this, the town’s charter was revoked again in 1872, and the town was administered as a police district by the state legislature for the following year.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 catering to railroad workers and other men. Frequent gunfire in the street by intoxicated patrons resulted in railroads directing their passengers to duck beneath the windows when their trains passed through the town.
In 1882, two factions claimed to rule the city government, one known as the “Bar room” headed by Mayor Dunbar, a saloon keeper, and another known as the “Citizens”. There was a riot in late November–December of that year, in which a dozen men were wounded. In the end a couple were killed. The Citizens had claimed control of the city via the elections, but Dunbar refused to give up. After continued violence, the state legislature revoked the city’s charter and the governor sent in the militia to restore order. The legislature appointed five commissioners to manage the city, a situation that continued until 1899. That year the legislature restored the city’s charter.
In 1900, local investors founded the Opelika Cotton Mill as the first textile plant in the city, employing 125. The city was located on the Fall Line of the Piedmont, where factories were established to take advantage of water power. Attempts to expand the textile industry in Opelika continued for the next three decades. In 1925 city officials used a $62,500 bribe to induce executives of the Pepperell Manufacturing Co. (now WestPoint Home) to construct a large mill just outside the city limits. From 1930 to 1970, Opelika continued industrialization, becoming a regional economic powerhouse.
Between the late 1970s and 2005, non-agricultural employment in the Auburn-Opelika, grew at a slow and steady pace. Of the goods-producing industries, the metropolitan area has experienced the most change in manufacturing, which peaked in employment in the late 1980s. As many jobs moved offshore, employment declined. But this trend appears to be changing, as the number of manufacturing jobs has risen steadily since 2002.