- Associated Press - Saturday, June 21, 2014

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) - On an overcast Friday morning, Opelika resident Cindy Brassell watched her grandchildren, 6-year-old Gracie Wilkerson and 3-year-old Kolton Wilkerson, circle Opelika’s Municipal Park three times in the Rocky Brook Rocket.

“That’s funny,” she said. “My second generation riding the train.”

Brassnell brought her daughters to ride the train in the late 1970s, more than two decades after the Rocky Brook Rocket made its debut.

“Back then, it was a quarter to ride it. Now, it’s a dollar,” she said.

The Rocky Brook Rocket, named in a contest by David McGinty, who was then a fifth grader at Northside Elementary School, took its inaugural ride at 6:05 p.m. on July 1, 1955, with Parks Director W.J. “Bill” Calhoun at the helm.

The train has run off and on since 1955, often being taken off the tracks for maintenance.

“It still runs, but it’s got problems. …We’ll fix one thing; the next thing will break,” said Municipal Area supervisor Matthew Battles, adding the most recent round of major updates occurred in 2007. “There’s always something going on with the train.”

Now, the Rocky Brook Rocket has a chance at a full restoration on the History Channel’s “American Restoration,” and the hope of running for another half century.

About a year ago, Battles, a “big ‘American Restoration’” fan, began looking in to having the Rocky Brook Rocket restored and contacted the show’s production company.

“The lady called me 20 minutes later and said, ‘We would love to put it on the show,’” Battles said, adding the show will spotlight Opelika and the train’s history. “We have to ship it to Las Vegas. Rick Dale will restore it for us, and that’ll take three to six months.”

The restoration will include an engine overhaul, new wiring, refurbished braking system, reconditioned body and new paint. The cost of the total restoration is roughly $75,000. The price of shipping the Rocky Brook Rocket to Nevada will bump the cost to between $87,000 and $90,000. The Department is also looking into refurbishing the depot and area around the train, which would bump the project’s cost to $100,000.

Battles has already gotten quotes on shipping by rail and by truck, but would like to get local businesses involved in the transport.

“It’s not an inexpensive project by any means,” Battles said. “I’d like the city not to put any money into it. .I think the community can get the money together pretty easily.”

To raise funds, the Opelika Parks and Recreation Department is hosting a Rocky Brook Rocket fundraiser. Businesses, clubs and individuals can donate money, and community members can purchase Rocky Brook Rocket t-shirts for $25 and engraved brick pavers for between $50 and $115, depending on size. The bricks will go toward the construction of a new walking path.

“One hundred percent of proceeds are all going directly to the train,” Battles said.

For Battles, the project is personal. While he has some memories of riding the Rocky Brook Rocket when he was a toddler, the train was out of commission for most of his childhood.

“I used to ride my bike down here and peek in the train shed,” he remembered.

Like Battles and Brassell, many current and former area residents share memories of the Rocky Brook Rocket.

Now living in Grayson, Georgia, Gary Shoffeitt grew up riding the Rocky Brook Rocket in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Shoffeitt wrote in an email his great aunt, Sarah Sumners, ran the park’s concession stand and contributed to the creation of Opelika’s Parks and Rec. Shoffeitt’s great uncle, Emory Sumners, ran the Rocky Brook Rocket for many years.

“What I most remember and enjoyed were the free fun train rides (I’d ride over and over!), the candy Aunt Sarah let me have, along with peanuts for the monkeys in the Monkey Park,” Shoffeitt wrote. “I spent many summers and the Rocky Brook Rocket.making memories I will cherish always.”

Ansley Hall moved to the area after graduating from Auburn University. Her son, Bennett, had his second birthday party at the Rocky Brook Rocket in March.

“He loves trains, so I thought this was the perfect place to have his birthday party,” she said Friday morning before boarding the Rocky Brook Rocket with her son.

While the train is well known in Opelika, Battles hopes its featured role on “American Restoration” will garner it, and the city, national attention.

“There are less than 100 trains left in existence, and less than 50 that are still running,” he said. “There aren’t very many left, and we’ve got one. We’re going to try to get it back to 1955, as it came.

“I’m a big history buff, so preserving our history and keeping our roots alive in Opelika is really important to me. .We’re going to give our little, small town national recognition.”

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Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/

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