Story By Kendyl Hollingsworth
Photos Contributed By Opelika Parks & Recreation
As Opelika continues to grow and change, some things remain the same. Events, businesses, parks and more have become mainstays in a city known for its Southern charm, putting smiles on families’ faces for generations.
If you’ve attended a summer concert in the park or beheld the twinkling lights during one of Opelika’s storied Christmas events, you may recognize the sights and sounds of a little train rolling through Municipal Park. That familiar engine drone — and occasional “Honk! Honk!” — of this miniature train signal one thing to gaggles of excited children: all aboard the Rocky Brook Rocket.
“I have wonderful memories of the Rocket,” said Gary Fuller, mayor of Opelika. “Municipal, or Monkey, Park was a regular place for us to take our children. Ginny and Gary Jr. rode the Rocky Brook Rocket many times, starting when they were just toddlers — precious memories for my family.”
Municipal Park’s little engine has towed thousands of children, parents and even grandparents through the park since 1955, but this popular train almost didn’t come to be.
According to former Parks and Recreation Director Bill Harrelson, who wrote a history of Municipal Park in 2008, it was September 1951 when the still-fairly-new Opelika Board of Parks and Recreation hired its first full-time director. Nashville, Tennessee, native W.J. “Bill” Calhoun was barely over 30 years old when he took up the reins from previous director Ann Cannon Price. But despite his young age, said he had lofty visions for the city’s recreation scene.
“Although the city of Opelika had the foresight to form a park board through the Alabama Legislature, public recreation was not considered a city service that needed to be funded,” Harrelson wrote. “There was no capital plan or any funding other than in-kind city services given to the park board at that time.”
Opelika touted its newly dedicated Municipal Park, as well as a new softball field adjacent to Rocky Brook Road — later named Miles Thomas Field — but other activities were usually confined to the local school facilities; that is, until Calhoun was struck with a grand idea.
According to Harrelson, Calhoun was drawn to the wooded area behind Northside School. He admired its beauty — especially the creek that ran through — and could picture the space being developed for “playgrounds, camping, church and family outings.”
Once city crews had cleared the area, Calhoun wracked his brain for something that would attract visitors to Municipal Park and encourage more recreation in Opelika.
His answer: a miniature train.
The train was the brainchild of both Calhoun and the Parks and Recreation Board. But without state funding, it was going to be a feat to bring that idea to life.
The early 1950s saw a 2-cent tax on each package of cigarettes in Opelika, and these proceeds supported the parks board, but it was going to take more than that tax alone. The board’s budget for the project sat at $10,000.
“Records indicate there was considerable jockeying between the [Parks and Recreation] board and representatives from the neighborhoods [in the area] for equitable disbursement of these funds,” Harrelson noted. “The board soon realized that any money spent in Municipal Park in the Northside Neighborhood would have to be a citywide effort.”
At first, the project was met with mixed reactions from the community. Some were certain it would fail, even dubbing it “Calhoun’s Folly,” among other derogatory names.
Nevertheless, Calhoun obtained approval from the Opelika Interclub Council for the city’s civic clubs to help fund the project. He then met with each club to ask for their help, bringing with him a representative from a miniature train company in Atlanta, Georgia. The pair explained how the addition of a miniature train in Municipal Park could bring in revenue and benefit citizens. The budget set would be used to purchase a 43-foot miniature train and more than 1,100 feet of tracks, as well as the necessary materials to operate the train.
With seven clubs on board, the Opelika Civic Clubs’ Scenic Railroad Association (OCCSRA) was officially born in June 1955. Even with this support, though, there would be stipulations.
“The fact that the Opelika Civic Clubs underwrote the $10,000 cost of the train is common knowledge among most Opelika citizens,” Harrelson wrote. “What is not known by most is that the money was not donated but loaned.”
OCCSRA would have to pay $1 per year to the city of Opelika for the next 20 years in a lease agreement for the park space and train. The OCCSRA was also bound to pay the civic clubs a set amount each year, with 5% interest to come from the proceeds of the train rides.
Preparations for the project had begun in May 1955; various clubs, citizens and businesses also donated grills and tables to set up in the park. A target date of July 1, 1955, was set to reveal the new ride.
According to Harrelson, the G-16 train was ordered through Wichita, Kansas-based Chance Manufacturing Co., but it was built by its sister company: Illinois-based Miniature Train Company, later bought out by the Allen Hershell Company.
“The 16 [in G-16] denoted the space between the two rails, and every detail of the train was one-fifth scale of the modern diesel locomotive of the time,” Harrelson explained.
The board also struck a deal with Central of Georgia, which provided the cross ties, constructed the bridges and laid the track “at no cost to the city or the OCCSRA.”
With everything seemingly good to go, the OCCSRA held a citywide contest to name the train. The winning entry came from David McGinty, a fifth-grade student at Northside School. Thus, the little engine would bear the name of the “Rocky Brook Rocket,” and McGinty would be able to ride the train for free in its first year of operation.
“I don’t believe in the 53 years that have followed, that there could have been a more appropriate name,” Harrelson wrote.
For all other passengers, three trips around the park would cost 15 cents per person.
Opelika was eager to welcome the Rocky Brook Rocket to town; the preparations were complete and celebrations planned. But less than a week to go until the big day, Harrelson said the train went AWOL somewhere between Indiana and Opelika. The opening ceremony was pushed back one week to July 8 with promises to welcome passengers aboard as soon as it arrived and was deemed ready to operate.
Luckily, Calhoun was informed on June 30 that the train had made it to Opelika. By 6:05 p.m. the next day, the Rocky Brook Rocket pulled out of its station at Municipal Park with 15 passengers in tow. Of course, Calhoun sat at the throttle. For the next few decades, H.J. Freeman would serve as the little train’s engineer and repairman.
The train’s rocky welcome didn’t end after its first day, though. The day of the ceremony brought with it a mighty storm, and while the fun was cut short in many ways, Parks and Recreation Board Chairman A.D. Sanders still “christened” the train that day “with a bottle of fresh, cool creek water from the park, and the legend began.”
The train has been well used and well loved since, becoming a welcome sight during various Municipal Park events and transforming into the Rocky Brook Rocket Reindeer Express each December.
“Mr. Calhoun always told me that when the clubs began to see the growth of public recreation in Opelika and the success of the Rocket, the clubs, one by one, began to forgive the debt,” Harrelson wrote. “He also said that he didn’t think the OCCSRA continued to pay the $1-per-year lease.”
But after about four decades of use, the Rocky Brook Rocket began slowing down in the 1990s, showing signs of wear and tear that come with age and frequent use. The Opelika Kiwanis Club raised money to keep it going for a few more years, but soon after, its parts became unavailable, Harrelson said. Luckily, they were able to obtain some a few years later, and around 2007, the Rocky Brook Rocket received more repairs to keep it going.
Seven years later, the Rocket was facing another slew of issues: a vacuum braking system that malfunctioned, drive axles that would separate and damage to the wheels and body. It wasn’t until 2015 that the little train would receive its next big restoration.
“Parts for the train were extremely hard to come by, and most of the time we would have to take the broken parts to a local machinist to get made,” said Matthew Battles, the municipal area supervisor in charge of Municipal Park and the Rocky Brook Rocket. “I knew that the train was an integral part of Opelika history and if it continued on the path that it was going, we would not have it around for much longer.”
So Battles presented the city with a plan to restore the train and tracks to their former glory. The plan included upgrades to Municipal Park as well. In the end, several citizens, corporations, nonprofits and civic clubs raised over $150,000 to complete the project.
Originally, the train would receive this service as part of the History Channel show “American Restoration,” but when the show was canceled beforehand, the city instead contracted California-based RMI Railworks Inc. to perform the restoration.
Fuller said he was proud to play a role in the Rocket’s restoration.
“We spent no taxpayer money on the restoration of this special train,” he said. “While it was gone, Matt Battles led the effort — and did a terrific job — to renovate the depot, storage shed and the area around the depot. I love living in a community that realizes and values the importance of continuing to make memories at Municipal Park and riding on the Rocky Brook Rocket.”
The new project took about 15 months to complete and included a complete replacement.