Experience the splendor of a Blue Ridge Mountain Getaway in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley! Discover our railroad heritage, take in the arts and culture, shop, eat, and enjoy the wealth of outdoor recreation in the heart of the mountains. We will welcome you with some of the finest hospitality you’ll experience anywhere .
The Roanoke Valley, with its mountain beauty, historic heritage and southern grace is a sightseers paradise. Wherever your interest leads you – into the wonders of science and nature, the lessons of history or the beauty of art – the Valley is sure to please. Visitors of all ages are sure to have mountains of fun!
Roanoke is an independent city located in the Roanoke Metropolitan Area in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Roanoke is also part of the Roanoke Region of Virginia. The city of Roanoke is adjacent to the city of Salem and the town of Vinton and is otherwise surrounded by, but politically separate from, Roanoke County. As of the 2000 census, the city had a total population of 94,911. The city is bisected by the Roanoke River. Roanoke is the commercial and cultural hub of much of the surrounding area of Virginia and southern West Virginia.
The town first called Big Lick was established in 1852 and chartered in 1874. It was named for a large outcropping of salt which drew the wildlife to the site near the Roanoke River. In 1882 it became the town of Roanoke, and in 1884 it was chartered as the independent city of Roanoke. The name Roanoke is said to have originated from an Algonquian word for shell “money”. This was also the name of the river that bisected it (probably where shells had come from) and the county. The city grew frequently through annexation through the middle of the twentieth century. The last annexation was in 1976. The state legislature has since prohibited cities from annexing land from adjacent counties. Roanoke’s location in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the middle of the Roanoke Valley between Maryland and Tennessee, made it the transportation hub of western Virginia and contributed to its rapid growth.
Roanoke Colonial Influence
During colonial times the site of Roanoke was an important hub of trails and roads. The Great Wagon Road, one of the most heavily traveled roads of eighteenth century America, ran from Philadelphia through the Shenandoah Valley to the future site of the City of Roanoke, where the Roanoke River passed through the Blue Ridge. The Roanoke Gap proved a useful route for immigrants to settle the Carolina Piedmont region. At Roanoke Gap, another branch of the Great Wagon Road, the Wilderness Road, continued southwest to Tennessee.
Roanoke Railroads and Coal
In the 1850’s, Big Lick became a stop on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad (V&T) which linked Lynchburg with Bristol on the Virginia-Tennessee border.
After the American Civil War (1861-1865), William Mahone, a civil engineer and hero of the Battle of the Crater, was the driving force in the linkage of 3 railroads, including the V&T, across the southern tier of Virginia to form the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad (AM&O), a new line extending from Norfolk to Bristol, Virginia in 1870. However, the Financial Panic of 1873 wrecked the AM&O’s finances. After several years of operating under receivership’s, Mahone’s role as a railroad builder ended in 1881 when northern financial interests took control. At the foreclosure auction, the AM&O was purchased by E.W. Clark and Co., a private banking firm in Philadelphia which controlled the Shenandoah Valley Railroad then under construction up the valley from Hagerstown, Maryland. The AM&O was renamed Norfolk and Western Railway (N&W).
Frederick J. Kimball, a civil engineer and partner in the Clark firm, headed the new line and the new Shenandoah Valley Railroad. For the junction for the Shenandoah Valley and the Norfolk and Western roads, Kimball and his board of directors selected the small Virginia village called Big Lick, on the Roanoke River. Although the grateful citizens offered to rename their town “Kimball”, at his suggestion, they agreed to name it Roanoke after the river. As the N&W brought people and jobs, the Town of Roanoke quickly became an independent city in 1884. In fact, Roanoke became a city so quickly that it earned the nickname “Magic City.”
Kimball’s interest in geology was instrumental in the development of the Pocahontas coalfields in western Virginia and West Virginia. He pushed N&W lines through the wilds of West Virginia, north to Columbus, Ohio and Cincinnati, Ohio, and south to Durham, North Carolina and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This gave the railroad the route structure it was to use for more than 60 years.
The Virginian Railway (VGN), an engineering marvel of its day, was conceived and built by William Nelson Page and Henry Huttleston Rogers. Following the Roanoke River, the VGN was built through the City of Roanoke early in the twentieth century. It merged with the N&W in 1959.
The opening of the coalfields made N&W prosperous and Pocahontas bituminous coal world-famous. Transported by the N&W and neighboring Virginian Railway (VGN), local coal fueled half the world’s navies. Today it stokes steel mills and power plants all over the globe.
The Norfolk & Western was famous for manufacturing steam locomotives in-house. It was N&W’s Roanoke Shops that made the company known industry-wide for its excellence in steam power. The Roanoke Shops, with its workforce of thousands, is where the famed classes A, J, and Y6 locomotives were designed, built, and maintained. New steam locomotives were built there until 1953, long after diesel-electric had emerged as the motive power of choice for most North American railroads. About 1960, N&W was the last major railroad in the United States to convert from steam to diesel power.
The presence of the railroad also made Roanoke attractive to manufacturers. American Viscose opened a large rayon plant in Southeast Roanoke in October 1917.This plant closed in 1958, leaving 5,000 workers unemployed. When N&W converted to diesel, 2,000 railroad workers were laid off.
Roanoke Cultural Hub
EventZone was created by the merger of various existing event organizers. EventZone is also charged with assisting in the creation of new festivals and activities in the Downtown Roanoke “event zone,” which is defined as all areas bound by Williamson Road, 6th Street, SW, the Roanoke Civic Center, and Rivers Edge Park.
Local Colors is a multi-cultural program which recognizes people of diverse origins, races and ethnic backgrounds and sponsors the annual Local Colors Festival in the third weekend of May.
Roanoke’s festivals and cultural events include the Chili Cook-Off, Festival in the Park, Local Colors Festival, Henry Street Festival, Big Lick Blues Festival, Strawberry Festival, and the large red, white, and blue illuminated Mill Mountain Star (formerly illuminated in red following drunk driving fatalities in the Roanoke Valley; temporarily illuminated in white on April 22, 2007 in remembrance of the Virginia Tech Massacre of April 16, 2007) on Mill Mountain, which is visible from many points in the city and surrounding valley.