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History of the Rocky Brook Rocket

By: Bill Harrelson, Director  Parks & Recreation

March 17, 2008

 

September 20, 1951, the Opelika Board of Parks and Recreation hired the first full time Director. Thirty one year old W.J. (Bill) Calhoun from Nashville, Tennessee was hired and an office at city hall was made available.  The park board had functioned since May 15, 1946, making Opelika one of the oldest municipal recreation departments in the State of Alabama. The first Opelika Park Board members were Marion Hyatt, I.J. Scott Sr., George Ball, T.K Davis Jr. and Claud Brown Sr. A summer program was run under the direction of Opelika High School Athletic Director “Coach” Sam Mason from 1946 through 1948. Mrs. Ann Cannon Price was hired as the first year round recreation director from 1948 until 1951. Even though Mrs. Price worked full time, her job was still tied in with the board of education and she used school facilities for all activities.

 

Municipal Park was the first dedicated park under the direction of the newly formed park board. This twenty acre tract was made available through the generosity of I.J. Scott Sr., a charter member of the park board. Mr. Winston Smith T Sr. also donated a tract of property adjacent to the Scott land. Through the efforts of the city and volunteers, the area adjacent to Rocky Brook Road, now known as Miles Thomas Field, was cleared and the first softball game was played, under the lights, on July 6, 1949. A second diamond was added in May of 1952.

 

When Mr. Calhoun came to work in 1951, one of his top priorities was the development of the wooded area behind Northside School, now known as Municipal Park. He thought that the wooded area with the beautiful rock filled creek flowing through it made the perfect setting for playgrounds, camping, church and family outings. The park began to come together with the clearing of the area by city crews and volunteers. Mr. Calhoun began to think of something that would be an attraction in newly formed Municipal Park and something that would serve as a catalyst for public recreation in Opelika.

 

Between Mr. Calhoun and the park board the idea of a miniature train to run through Municipal Park was born. During the early 1950’s a 2 cent per package cigarette tax was levied with the proceeds going to the park board. Records indicate there was considerable jockeying between the park board and representatives from the neighborhoods for equitable disbursement of these funds. The board soon realized that any money spent in Municipal Park in the Northside Neighborhood would have to be a city wide effort. 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. There was no capital plan or any funding other than in-kind city services given to the park board at that time.

 

It was decided that the train would be financed through the civic clubs within the City of Opelika. Mr. Calhoun went to the Opelika Interclub Council for their approval and then visited each club to ask for their help. He even had a representative, from a miniature train company in Atlanta, accompany him to several meetings. They explained the benefits and the money that could be raised by such an attraction. A budget of $10,000.00 was set for the project. This figure included the purchase of the forty three foot train, 1130 feet of track, and the necessary materials to put the train in operation.

There were seven civic clubs that pledged their support of the project. The clubs pledged various amounts of money based on their membership. There was an association formed called the “Opelika Civic Clubs’ Scenic Railroad Association”. (OCCSRA) Each club appointed a member to serve on that board. This board became commonly referred to as the “Train Board”. Charter members of the board were as follows:

 

1.      Rotary Club – Mr. T.C. Carr (Chairman)

2.      Pilot Club – Mrs. Sara Nell Lockett (Secretary / Treasurer)

3.      Jaycees – Malcolm Humphries

4.      Lions Club – Mr. W.E. Stewart

5.      Exchange Club – Mr. Edgar Ratcliff

6.      Civitan Club – Mr. Bruce Caldwell

7.      Kiwanis Club – Mr. Otis Ward

(Ex-officio Member – Mr. Bill Calhoun, Director of Parks and Recreation)

 

The fact that the Opelika Civic Clubs underwrote the $10,000.00 cost of the train is common knowledge among most Opelika citizens. What is not known by most is that the money was not donated but loaned. There was a lease agreement between the City of Opelika and the “Opelika Civic Clubs’ Scenic Railroad Association” that leased Municipal Park and the Train for $1.00 an year to the OCCSRA. This association was incorporated on June 23, 1955. This lease ran for twenty years. It was agreed that the OCCSRA would pay the civic clubs annual payments plus 5% interest from the proceeds from the train rides. Ride prices were set at fifteen cents for three trips around the park.

 

By May of 1955 the park had been cleared with the help of city departments and volunteers. Park Road was graded and paved and the bed for the train tracks was laid. There were picnic tables and grills donated by individuals, businesses, and clubs. “We have purposely kept one of the original concrete tables in the park over the years”.

 

The train was ordered and a deal was struck with “Central of Georgia” to provide the cross ties, construct the bridges, and lay the track at no cost to the city or the OCCSRA. The train was ordered from Chance Manufacturing Co. Wichita, Kansas. The train was actually built by a sister company of Chance Manufacturing called Miniature Train Company of Rensselaer, Indiana. This company was later bought out by the “Allen Hershell Company”. The train ordered was called a “G-16”, the 16 denoted the scale and every detail of the train was a 16 to 1 ratio of the modern diesel locomotive of the time.

 

The train was ordered, the park and tracks were well underway to completion and the train was set to be delivered by rail express on the 25th of June. The next order of business was the naming of the locomotive. It was decided that there would be a city wide contest to name the train with OCCSRA serving as judges. The winning entry would get a one year pass to ride the train.

 

The winning name was the “Rocky Brook Rocket” submitted by a fifth grade student at Northside Elementary, David McGinty. I don’t believe in the 53 years that have followed, that there could have been a more appropriate name.

 

Now everything was ready. The train was named and in route, the park and track was complete, the opening ceremonies were planned for July 1, 1955 and the bill of laden had been delivered. June 25th got here and the train was AWOL. The railroad said that the train was on a sidetrack somewhere between Indiana and Opelika. The opening ceremonies were postponed until July 8th, but the train would run as soon as it arrived and was put into operation. Mr. Calhoun received a call on June 30th saying that the train was in Opelika. He immediately called Light and Power Superintendent R.J. McBurney and immediate plans were made to transport the “Rocky Brook Rocket” to Municipal Park.

 

The better part of the day on July 1st was spent in getting the train operational and making sure it was ready for the public. At 6:05 PM that day, the Rocket pulled out of the Municipal Park Depot with 15 passengers and Mr. Calhoun at the throttle. The engineer duties were then turned over to Mr. H.J. Freeman. Mr. Freeman was a 34 year employee of the railroad and was hired by the OCCSRA to run the train and take care of maintenance and track repair. The train operated the rest of that week with the opening ceremonies planned for Saturday July 8, 1955. Saturday morning came and it was a terrible day with wind, rain, and lightning in the area. After all the delays the ceremonies were started with all speeches cut short and the public rides cancelled. The christening did take place with Mr. A.D. Sanders, chairman of the park board, doing the honors. The “Rocky Brook Rocket” was christened with a bottle of fresh, cool creek water from the park, and the legend began.  

 

The first year of operation, running from July 1st through October 1, 1955, profited $602.25. It was decided that for that year only the 5% interest would be paid to the clubs with the remainder of the money kept in savings to begin operation April 1, 1956. The OCCSRA stayed in the black for the next few years and began to repay the debt to the respective civic clubs. 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. He also said that he didn’t think the OCCSRA continued to pay the $1.00 per year lease. During the next several years the OCCSRA was reduced to a five member board referred to as the “Train Board”. The board functioned and stayed in the black until 1984 when it was dissolved by the City of Opelika. The last train board meeting was held February 27, 1984 with the following members present: Claud Brown, Edgar Ratcliff, Athol Sylvester, Bruce Caldwell and appropriately W.J. (Bill) Calhoun.

 

During the 1990’s the Rocket fell on hard times. The train and the tracks began showing their years. There was a project in the mid 1990’s by the Opelika Kiwanis Club to give the train a facelift and get the Rocket in good mechanical condition. This prolonged the running of the Rocket for a few years, but the train parts about this time became unavailable. The Allen Hershell Company recently began to manufacture more and more parts to keep the G-16 trains across the country operating. During the last year several City of Opelika departments as well as the Opelika Rotary Club and Scott Bridge Company have made tremendous contributions through financial support and services to get the Rocket operational again. Special thanks needs to be given to Don Sorjonen, Curtis “Bruno” Prince and Chuck Sanders for volunteering their time during the past year to put the Rocket back on the tracks.

The “Rocky Brook Rocket” has provided fun and family entertainment to thousands of Opelika Citizens since 1955. More importantly, this little train was the catalyst that brought public recreation together in Opelika. Mr. Calhoun was laughed at when he started this project in the early 1950’s. Even after the train was put into operation many called it “Calhoun’s Folley” and other derogatory names. Mr. Calhoun always said, and I certainly agree. “Without the ‘Rocky Brook Rocket’ public recreation in Opelika would have been set back many years”.

 

With the groundbreaking of the “Opelika Sportsplex and Aquatics Center” all Opelika residents should thank the citizens mentioned in this history for their vision for public recreation during a time when it was considered unnecessary by most.