The area’s first settlers were farmers who began to arrive in the early 19th century, building along the river banks and working as farmers and miners. Although the town wouldn’t begin for several more years, John Webber built the first house in 1844.
The following year the Frisco Branch of the Southwest Railroad would begin to survey the land for the westward pushing railroad. Lieutenant James Abert led the survey and would later become the first professor of Civil Engineering at the Missouri School of Mines.
When the railroad began to be built, a small settlement started to form in 1855 when the railroad erected an office and several warehouses. Anticipating the coming of the railroad, nearly 600 people moved to the area within six months. In 1857, Rolla was made the county seat of Phelps County, and the following year, the city was officially laid out. The town was named when one of the original settlers, formerly of North Carolina, favored the name “Raleigh” after his hometown. Other settlers agreed on the name on the condition that it wasn’t spelled that “funny” way and they settled on “Rolla.”
On December 22, 1860, the first train arrived in Rolla, making the city the road’s terminus. The outbreak of the Civil War halted the westward expansion of the line. Many area residents had Confederate sympathies during this time, and Union forces took Rolla in June 1861. Two minor forts were built during their occupation — Fort Wyman and Fort Dette and Camps Glover and Davies. Soon, as many as 20,000 Union troops were stationed in the vicinity, and the town became an important transportation hub as supplies were shipped from the east and loaded to wagons headed west.
In 1870 the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy was founded due to Rolla’s location and its mineral riches. Today, the school provides 12 fields of engineering and science degrees, including mining and metallurgy.
When Route 66 came through, it replaced Route 14, a difficult gravel road to travel in anything but good weather. Work began on the concrete slab in 1928, and from Rolla to Lebanon, it was the last piece to be paved in Missouri because of its difficulty. The completion was cause for a huge celebration. Rolla further improved its image by completing the paving of city streets connected with the highway. Rolla became a vacation playground in no time as tourist cabins, motels, trading posts, and fishing camps sprang up.
Today, Rolla is called home to about 20,400 people and continues to be a haven for outdoor adventurers with its proximity to the Current and Jack’s Fork Rivers, Ozark forests, caves, springs, and bluffs. The town also provides a rich view of its heritage in its historical buildings and vintage peeks of old Route 66.
On the corner of Third and Rolla Streets is the John A. Dillon Log House, built in 1857 and utilized as the first Phelps County Courthouse. Today the building houses the Phelps County Museum. In 1859 Phelps County began to build another Courthouse just across the street, which served as a hospital and supply storage during the Civil War.
For views of Route 66, be sure to check out the Mule Trading Post just as you enter the east side of town. On the west end is the Totem Pole Trading Post, opened in 1933, offering gas and novelties to cross-country travelers. Located at the corner of Route 66 and Martin Springs Drive, the vintage store sells antiques to new adventurers of the Mother Road.
For an interesting look at something else altogether, visit the Rolla Stonehenge, a partial reconstruction of the ancient megalith built by students at the University of Missouri at Rolla.
Continue westward on a scenic drive through several small settlements and resorts bypassed by Interstate I-44 many years ago. Along this historic stretch, you’ll see the remains of John’s Modern Cabins, built in 1935, the old ghost town of Arlington, the remains of the once-popular Stony Dell Resort, Larry Baggett’s Tribute to the Trail of Tears, and more as you make your way to Devil’s Elbow.