Story By Michelle Key, Tucker Massey and Anita Stiefel
Although they rumble daily through Lee County, since discontinuation of local passenger rail service in the early 1970s the trains no longer stop in any of the cities along the line. However, the historic train depots stand, preserving reminders of days gone by …
The Creek village that encompassed what is now known as Loachapoka was established in 1796. The name which is believed to mean “where turtles live” or “turtle killing place,” was later reclaimed after the area was briefly being named Ball’s Fork after being settled by white pioneers.
The first white settler, a man named Square Talley, arrived via stagecoach in 1836 after the forced migration of the Creek tribe in the years proceeding.
The Western Railroad advanced from Montgomery to Loachapoka in 1845. Since it was the end of the line at the time, the depot was built with a nearby turntable to reverse the engines back to Montgomery. During its peak years, upwards of 12 trains ran daily.
The building that now houses the Lee County Historical Museum was once a trade center, where settlers in the area could purchase goods delievered by rail. This building is the oldest commercial structure in Lee County.
A historical marker was erected in 1978 by the Historic Chattahoochee Commission. It reads:
Coming of the railroad from Montgomery in 1845 started a new era, with Loachapoka’s name revived. It became the trade center for Waverly, Roxana, Rome, Camp Hill, Dudleyville and Dadeville. Rousseau’s Raiders hit Loachapoka at sun down, Sunday, July 17, 1864, and stayed one day.
Census of 1870 indicated a population of 1,254, but reconstruction, migration, 1873 panic and railroad extension from Opelika to Dadeville in the early 1870’s destroyed the town’s pre-eminence, Loachapoka was placed on the National Register of historic places May 11, 1973.
Today the tracks are only used to transport freight.
A five-minute walk away from the famed Toomer’s Corner in downtown Auburn sits The Depot, a landmark included on the Alabama Register of Historic Places.
The city’s original train depot was built in 1847 to service the Montgomery and West Point Railroad. It was a bustling hub of activity, was crucial to the Confederacy during the Civil War, when it was used to transport military supplies. The site was visited by Jefferson Davis during his inauguration tour in 1861. In 1864, Union forces “Rousseau’s Raiders,” led by Maj. Gen. Lovell Harrison Rousseau, burned down the station and destroyed the tracks.
A few years after the war ended, with the rise of the “golden railroad era,” the depot was rebuilt in 1870. It was also the scene of an infamous 1896 university prank the night before Georgia Tech’s football team was set to arrive in town. Auburn students snuck out of their dorms in the middle of the night and greased the railroad tracks. The arriving team’s train slid past the station, forcing the players to walk miles back to town (some sources say a mile, some say five miles and others say “all the way to Notasulga”). The notorious incident was the genesis of the “Wreck Tech Pajama Parade,” an Auburn tradition celebrated preceding the football matchup for decades.
In 1904, a lightning strike sparked a fire that destroyed the second station. The depot was rebuilt that same year, and still stands today. The Victorian structure was designed by AU architecture student Ralph Dudley.
The depot served as the transportation hub of Auburn during the early 20th century and remained in service until the last passenger train pulled out of the station on Jan. 7, 1970. The building was used as commercial office space until 2003, when it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
The building was saved when it was purchased by the city of Auburn in 2013.
Executive Chef and Co-owner Scott Simpson came to Auburn in 2014 to become executive chef and culinary educator at The Hotel at Auburn University and a culinary instructor in the school’s hospitality program. Matt and Jana Poirier, who own The Hound in Auburn, said they wanted to expand and create another concept restaurant, and they reached out to Simpson for ideas and to gauge his interest.
Simpson felt the area lacked a high-quality seafood-focused restaurant. The Poiriers found the depot location and worked with the city to restore the historic landmark while making it suitable for a restaurant. The Depot opened in September 2015.
“The time-worn tracks of The Depot have seen the face of war and abandonment, but now, over 150 years later, The Depot has once again been resurrected,” states The Depot’s website. “Bringing globally-inspired cuisine to the heart of Alabama in this historic landmark, we are proud to be part of Auburn’s revitalization.”
The original elements of the Depot from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s were all repurposed — the 200-year-old knotted pine that was once the train platform was repurposed into the chef’s table, bar and hostess stand, and original doors were restored along with the black and white floor tiles from another era.
The Depot offers an upscale dining experience, featuring award-winning seafood cuisine and an extensive wine list.
“We want people to be blown away, to exceed their expectations and make sure that eating here is a noteworthy, lingering memory,” Simpson said.
The locally-sourced menu includes appetizers such as original gumbo with andouille sausage, spicy blue crab dip and Oysters Rockefeller.
The menu changes daily, with featured dishes posted by 5 p.m. on the website allaboardauburn.com. Entrees include specialties such as giant sea scallops with jumbo red shrimp and grits, blackened redfish and crab-stuffed rainbow trout. While seafood is the main attraction, The Depot also offers woodfire grilled steakhouse cuts and other meat and poultry dishes. The dessert menu includes the classics: crème brulee, bananas Foster and New York style cheesecake.
Located at 124 Mitcham Ave. in Auburn, the restaurant is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday evenings (closed Sunday and Monday), with happy hour at The Bar from 5 to 7 p.m. Reservations are recommended and can be made online at allaboardauburn.com.
In 1848, six years before Opelika was even incorporated as a town and 18 years before Lee County was established, the first rails of Opelika’s now-historic railway were laid.
Prior to the railway’s construction, Opelika had very little settlement and was once called Lebenon, according to Opelika Main Street. The first white settlers moved to the area in 1832, after the United States government signed a treaty with the Muskogee (Creek) Nation.
These settlers gave the town its name of Lebenon, having previously been Opelika when it was under the Muskogee. According to Visit Auburn-Opelika, the name of Lebenon did not stick very long and was changed back to Opelika soon after.
Despite initial slow growth in the newly settled area, the completion of a railroad from Montgomery, Alabama, to Opelika in 1848 altered the course of the city’s history.
This railroad soon connected Opelika to West Point, Georgia, in 1851 — a city that had recently began construction on a railway to Atlanta, that was eventually completed in 1854, according to the city of West Point.
Not only did this new connection put Opelika in the center of Montgomery and Atlanta, but it also connected New Orleans to the eastern seaboard directly — the first and only direct connection for New Orleans at the time.
The railroads built in what became Lee County were some of the earliest lines in Alabama and the South as a whole. East Alabama Arts (EAA) published a piece detailing the history of Opelika’s historic railroad and included an excerpt from a paper by a man named J. Lawrence Lee, in which he discussed the earliest history of the railway in Lee County.
“The first railroad to be built into what is now Lee County was also the second line in Alabama and one of the earliest in the South. First chartered by the state in 1832, as the Montgomery Railroad, the Montgomery and West Point reached Loachapoka and Auburn in 1847, Opelika in 1848 and completed its line to West Point in 1851,” Lee wrote.
By 1851, this railroad operated eight trains with 10 passenger cars and more than 70 freight cars across an 88-mile track. According to EAA, the fiscal year 1850-51 receipts totaled more than $140,000, and train depots were built in Auburn, Opelika and Loachapoka. When the West Point to Atlanta railroad opened in 1854, service from Opelika to Atlanta was offered.
Suddenly, Opelika served as a railway junction and commercial hub for the surrounding rural, agriculture-based area. As a result, many agricultural storehouses were built for cotton and other goods. Opelika became a staple in the cotton industry, as much of the cotton concentrated in the area was transported northeast through the Opelika train station.
However, not long after the construction of the railways and rapid growth of Opelika, the Civil War began. According to Opelika Main Street, these agricultural warehouses were converted into Confederate storehouses.
As the Union barreled through the South, and burned and destroyed everything in sight, Opelika’s once-mighty position on the railway was demolished by Union generals Lovell Rousseau and James H. Wilson. The Union forces tore up the railway infrastructure and depleted the commercial success of the railway in Opelika.
Lee wrote about the success of Opelika coming from the construction of the railroad, particularly as Opelika sat at a junction between the West Point railway and the Columbus railway. He said that this is why Union generals targeted the area.
“What really put Opelika on the map was the construction of a second line between Columbus and Opelika,”Lee wrote. “So, even before the Civil War, we had become a railroad junction point. Opelika’s prominence as a rail center caused General [William] Sherman, who was pressing down from Chattanooga toward Atlanta, to order General Rousseau to descend from North Alabama in a calvary raid and destroy the railroad between Opelika and Loachapoka to burn supplies and rolling stock, mainly located in Opelika, destined for the Confederate defense of Alabama.”
In total, Union forces destroyed 30 miles of railroad, and Wilson continued to dismantle railways in the South even after Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865.
Like many other areas in the South, Opelika had some rebuilding to do. Lee County was established in 1866, and railway reconstruction began in Opelika. According to the Museum of East Alabama, the success of Opelika’s railway just never reached the heights it had leading up to the Civil War. Other eastbound routes were being constructed at a more rapid pace, and Opelika’s reconstruction never caught up.
Goods were still shipped out of Opelika, not at the rate that they were pre-Civil War, but in the early 20th century, textiles produced in the Pepperell and Opelika Cotton Mills were shipped out of Opelika.
Aside from shipping goods, the railway in Opelika was used for prisoner-of-war transport during World War II and for passenger use. However, the railways’ days as a passenger transport dwindled with a new era of automotive innovation, and the last passenger trains left the city in 1971, ending more than 125 years of passenger service, according to EAA.
Today, freight trains still roll through downtown Opelika, and the once-vacant train depot was renovated in the early 2000s and is currently used for Pre-K classrooms.
The depot and freight trains — while not as crucial and vibrant as they used to be — still sit in downtown Opelika, serving as reminders of an era of prosperity, growth and the decline of a particular era in American industrialization. However, they still serve as a vital part of Opelika — a part that built the city and made it what it is today.