The first white settlers in the area now known as Opelika arrived in the late 1830s and established a community called Lebenon. After the removal of the native peoples by force in 1836-37, the area became known as "Opelika", taken from a word in the Muskogee language meaning "large swamp." Settlement was sporadic until the late 1840s when Opelika quickly became a commercial center with the coming of the railroad.
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 and rapidly became one of the primary trade lines for shipments of rawcotton 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.
To manage this rapid growth, Opelika was incorporated as a town on February 9, 1854. As a result of Opelika's transportation infrastructure, many warehouses for storing cotton and other goods were built. With the onset of the Civil War these warehouses were converted to Confederate supply depots. In 1864 and 1865, Union raids commanded by Lovell Rousseau and James H. Wilson attacked Opelika, tearing up the railroads and destroying all government property, including Opelika's warehouses.
After Opelika received a new charter in 1870, rapid growth resumed. The town nearly doubled in size between 1870 and 1900. In 1900, local investors founded the Opelika Cotton Mill as the first textile plant in the city, employing 125 people. The period between 1930 and 1970 would turn out to be Opelika's heyday as industrial growth turned Opelika into a regional economic powerhouse.
Opelika continued to add factories and other industry throughout the middle years of the 20th century. In the 1950s, Opelika attracted the nation's first and largest magnetic tape manufacturing plant. In 1963, tire manufacturer Uniroyal constructed a massive plant in Opelika, and around the same time Diversified Products revolutionized the physical fitness equipment industry with products produced their Opelika plant. By the early 1970s, Opelika's industries employed nearly 10,000 workers.
Historic Downtown Opelika is enjoying a return to the center of life in Opelika following a major renovation project that has restored the buildings and streets into a shopping district with a turn of the 20th century flair. The Opelika Main Street, Inc. program has contributed to the success of Opelika's downtown revitalization. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Downtown Opelika is filled with a variety of specialty shops, galleries, antique stores and restaurants.
In Opelika, six new businesses opened in the downtown district last year. Opelika Main Street brings 2,000 people downtown every spring and fall with its food and wine festival called On the Tracks, which raises thousands of dollars. In addition, it had five other successful downtown events last year. As part of its business recruitment and financial incentive program, Main Street offers matching grants up to $5,000 for facade improvements on downtown buildings, through a partnership with the city.
Main Street is a unique preservation based economic development program.