The first settlers came to this area in 1818 building along the riverbanks, doing a little farming. John Webber built the first house built in within the present city limits of Rolla in 1844.
One year later Lt. James Abert started the first railroad reconnaissance survey in Rolla. Abert was later to become the first professor of Civil Engineering at the Missouri School of Mines. The founder of Rolla, Edmund Ward Bishop, was originally a railroad construction contractor in New York. He came to this part of the country in 1853 with the job of building the “Frisco Branch of the Southwest Railroad.”
Because of an urgent demand, Phelps County was created by legislative action on November 13, 1857 from portions of Pulaski, Maries and Crawford Counties. A special commission was appointed to select the site for a county seat, with instructions to locate the site on the mail line of the railroad as near the center of the county as possible. Bishop then offered a tract of some 50 acres for the official town site, and it was accepted. There was disagreement over the site, the "westerners" wanting Rolla, and the "easterners" wanting Dillon, so the General Assembly did not legally declare Rolla to be the official county seat until 1861. The group favoring Dillon contested the decision all the way through the Missouri Supreme Court before it was finally settled in favor of Rolla.
Rolla was officially surveyed, laid out and named in 1858. Bishop wanted to call it Phelps Center, since his house was the center of the county. John Webber preferred the name "Hardscrabble" for the obvious reasons. George Coppedge, another original settler, and formerly of North Carolina, favored "Raleigh" after his hometown. The others agreed with Coppedge on the condition that it shouldn't have "that silly spelling, but should be spelled 'Rolla.'
The railroad ran its first train on December 22, 1860, making Rolla the terminus of the road. Until the continuation of the Frisco, all goods were loaded on wagons and transported to Springfield and south and west on what is now U.S. Highway 66 (Interstate 44). During the Civil War, Rolla was an important military post with as many as 20,000 Union troops here. The original Phelps County Court House was transformed into a hospital during the war.
In April 1861, Fort Sumter was fired upon and a decision was made to support the South. On May 10, Circuit Court session saw a heated debate of secession, which caused a breakup of the proceedings. As the story goes, Circuit Court Judge James McBride soon departed to assume command as a Confederate general under Sterling Price. Outside the courthouse, a group of men drew down the United States flag and raised a Confederate flag, which had been hastily pieced together by the women of Rolla. The tension was thick when the group then moved to the newspaper office of Charles Walder, a Union supporter and editor of the Rolla Express. Walder was forced to close his shop and cease printing. Southern sympathizers patrolled the town day and night, often ordering Union sympathizers to leave town.
On June 14 of that year, General Franz Sigel arrived by train with his 3rd Missouri Infantry and took over the town. From that day until the close of the war, Rolla was in Union hands.
The 13th Illinois Infantry Regiment, under Colonel John B. Wyman, was brought in to guard Rolla and the Pacific Railroad’s terminal. It was this regiment that did the basic planning and building of Fort Wyman, although other regiments undertook the task of finishing it. President Lincoln’s personal order was that Rolla should be held at all costs. Being situated at the terminus of the railroad, military wagon trains went out from Rolla to all Union armies stationed southwest in Arkansas, Hartville, and Springfield and northwest to the Linn Creek area, now known as Lake of the Ozarks.
The Morrill Land-Grant College Act was approved by the U.S. Congress, and in 1863 the Missouri Legislature accepted this opportunity to set up a new type of higher education within the state. The act specified that the "leading object shall be without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and mechanics arts... in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits of professions of life."
The Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy was founded in 1870 because the area was rich in minerals and because the geographic location was good. Phelps County bid $130,545, including lands and bonds, and was awarded the prize. Today it is known as one of the finest engineering schools in the world. Not confined to mining and metallurgy, it confers degrees in twelve fields of engineering and science, as well as graduate degrees.
Rolla’s history is a rich one, possessing action, emotion and adventure, enthusiasm, hard work and determination. No one could have predicted what a valuable resource to the world that Rolla, Missouri would one day become. Serving as a home to UMR, cutting edge technological businesses, industries, agriculture and commerce, family values and a scenic environment, Rolla is proud of where it’s been and where it is going, and continues to “make history” every day of the year.
For more information about the history, check with the Phelps County Historical Society by calling 573-364-1891.