Story By: Nicole Frinzi.
Deep into the Historical District of Opelika there is a “hidden treasure”, according to Matthew Battles, area supervisor for the Municipal Park in Opelika, Ala.
Municipal Park, at 1102 Denson Drive, has a lot to offer a park goer. Rocky Brook Creek winds its way through the park beneath tall trees.
Six different play areas feature a different jungle gym to explore. Each jungle gym seems to have its own character. Some are visibly new, and some are old with paint chips and dents from years of being loved by children.
Some jungle gyms have green single slides, and even double slides. Laughter from jubilant children floats in the air as their parents watch from green picnic tables.
But every now and then the peaceful scene is disrupted by the noise of a train coming around a track that cuts through the park and crosses over several bridges.
This little red 43-foot train with a silver stripe made public recreation in Opelika, Ala., possible. How could a small little train carry so much weight? It does this through a long history and fond memories in the community.
“When you think about Municipal Park you think of the train,” Battles said.
When Battles took the job as supervisor he “thought it would be interesting to be in control of an area [he] grew up in.
“I have kids now and I want to be able to come here with them, and I want their kids to be able to come here too and ride the train.”
The “Rocky Brook Rocket” history started all the way back in the 1950s. On Sept. 20, 1951, the Opelika Board of Parks and Recreation hired Bill Calhoun. Calhoun was the first director for the park.
Municipal Park was the first dedicated park formed under the park board. Calhoun’s first order of business was to develop an area behind Northside School. The area now known as Municipal Park was the perfect setting for playgrounds, picnic tables and park attractions.
Calhoun’s second order of business was to think of an idea that would jump start public recreation in the Opelika area, and this is where the idea of the small train was born.
The train was to be financed by local clubs around Opelika. The budget was $10,000, which provided for the 43-foot train, the 1,130 feet of tracks and other materials.
Seven clubs from Opelika formed an association called “Opelika Civic Clubs’ Scenic Railroad Association,” commonly referred to as the “Train Board.” Funds were loaned to the park by this association, with the debt to be paid back over the years.
In May of 1955 the park began paving the roads and laying the tracks for the creation of the train. Picnic tables were put in place. Today, you can see one of the original concrete picnic tables still at the park.
The train was ordered from Chance Manufacturing Co. in Kansas, but it was actually built by Miniature Train Company in Indiana. The delivery date was set for June 25.
The next order of business was finding a name for this train. Calhoun decided that there would be a community contest for naming the train, and the “Train Board” would be the judges. “Rocky Brook Rocket” was thought up by David McGinty, a fifth grade student at Northside Elementary.
The train arrived five days late on June 30, and, on July 8, 1955, the opening ceremony for the train took place. On a rainy Saturday all the speeches were cut short and the train was not open for rides, but the “Rocky Brook Rocket” was christened with a bottle of water from the Rocky Brook Creek.
“They put it here and of course everything else just came in,” Battles said.
In its first year of operation, the train brought in $602.25. When the clubs began to see the positive impact of the train they began to forgive the debt that was owed.
For the next several decades, the train was in great condition. Decades later, during the 1990s, the train started experiencing a few age-related problems.
“I remember riding the train as a little kid, but when I got old enough to play on my own the train was not operating,” said Battles.
“We used to always come down and try and peak into the shed and see the train because it was down for so many years.”
It wasn’t until 2008 that the train was back up and running like the little engine that could.
“They did a big restoration service to it. Scott Bridge helped with a lot of the restoration, and there was a big ceremony and a rededication,” said Battles.
Today, the train is still running with a few dings and dents, some rust here and there and a few scratches. Not bad for being around since the 1950s.
The current train is conducted by William Herd, part of the service and maintenance crew for the Municipal Park. He conducts the train as well as providing the maintenance. “I love working on the train. I really do,” said Herd.
The train is currently in operation, but Battles is working on getting funding for a complete restoration of the train to its former glory.
“The biggest thing for me is keeping that train going. It operates now, but I’m not going to run it this Saturday because the brakes aren’t working properly,” he said.
His current restoration dream is to have Rick Dale of Ricks Restorations in Las Vegas, Nevada, restore the “Rocky Brook Rocket.” The train would get an engine overhaul, refurbished braking system, reconditioned body and new paint.
LeftField Pictures, the producers of American Restoration, would record the restoration to be aired on the History Channel. This restoration would have many benefits for Opelika and the community including keeping the “Rocky Brook Rocket” tradition alive, Battles said.
The restoration would involve shipping the train to Las Vegas, and Battles estimates the cost would be about $80,000. He said he believes the community will step up to keep the little train running for generations to come.
“Without the train, you wouldn’t have Municipal Park. If anything were to happen to that train, the community itself would pitch in to keep it going,” he added.
“We have a little treasure down here in Opelika,” said Battles. “It’s what keeps people coming back.”
The train runs in the summer. This season it opened on March 29, and will continue to be open all summer. “On opening day, we had 250 people within a three-hour time span. That’s a lot of people,” said Battles.
It costs $1 to ride the train, and it takes you around the park three times.
Another popular season for train riding is Christmas time. Battles decorates the park for the community. “I put up thousands of lights around the park. I create little scenes around the train like Snowman Village, Candy Cane Forest, and Santa’s Workshop. I decorate the park in a Winter Wonderland.”
“The wonder on my kids faces about that train in unbelievable,” said Emily Gurley, a local park goer. “It puts a smile on anyone’s face.”
The train is available for rent through the Opelika Parks and Recreation for $40 for a half hour but only when the train is not in use by the general public.
Beyond the famous “Rocky Brook Rocket” train, the Municipal Park has more to offer. A large wooden gazebo is also available to rent for parties or picnics.
During the summer months, starting May 6, Summer Swing begins. Every Tuesday, there is a free concert and a concession stand. The train is also free to the public for one hour during Summer Swing.
Whether you want to relax with family, take in beautiful scenery or take a ride on a miniature train, Municipal Park in Opelika is the place to be.