The Real Story of Roanoke


Dear Henry,

There has been so much going on, with my trip to Washington DC (twice) and a journey back to my childhood city, that I haven't had the opportunity to tell you about my new hometown, Roanoke, Virginia.

I should probably start by mentioning that Roanoke, Virginia is not the location of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. The Lost Colony of Roanoke is about 300 miles southeast, on an island, and in North Carolina. 

In fact, Roanoke wasn't even called Roanoke until 1882. 

The city is located in the valley between the Allegheny and the Blue Ridge Mountains and, historically, has always been something of a crossroads. In pre-colonial days, the area was a stopping point along a Native American trail system that I've heard called "The Great War Path," "The Seneca Trail," or "The Indian Trail," which runs the length of the valley. The route is still used today and is now US Highway 11, or Lee Highway. Within the area are several easy passes through the Allegheny and the Blue Ridge Mountains, tons of ore (iron, lead, and zinc) in the foothills of the mountains, and plenty of natural springs and rivers throughout the valley. The area springs, with their high mineral and salt content, created a lot of salt licks and brought a lot of game. As a result, the area has always been a very attractive place to restock on a long journey.

Euro-American exploration didn't really reach the valley until 1726, more than 100 years after the settlement of Jamestown, with Thomas Marlin, a peddler, and John Salling, a weaver, the first two "white men" to enter the area. 

It went badly.

Thomas Marlin managed to escape to Winchester (where he told of the valley's riches and started the colonial exodus to the valley). However, John Salling was made a prisoner by Native Peoples. Mr. Salling was taken all the way to the Gulf of Mexico before he was ransomed and able to make his way back to Virginia.

Despite the glowing recommendations of Thomas Marlin and John Salling, there wasn't much more than a Euro-American trading post, stagecoach stop, and several small farms in the area until 1825, and it wasn't until 1838 that Roanoke county and a small village called Big Lick (named from the numerous area salt licks) was formed.



The Norfolk and Western Railroads, taking advantage of the topography, mining demand, and proximity to coal, built rail lines through Big Lick in 1852. These lines were later joined by the Virginian, Tennessee, Southside, and Petersburg lines.

Then the US Civil War happened.

The destruction of the Confederacy's railroad was a big priority to the Union. So General Henry Jackson Hunt and Brigadier General William W. Averell made several raids in the area. While they could never wholly disable the railroad (General Hunt was able to burn down the Bonsack Woolen Mill, the maker of Confederate uniforms, and Brigadier General Averell took over the nearby town of Salem.), the Union Army was able to destroy the depot in Big Lick.

After the Civil War and during the Reconstruction phase, most of the railroads of the Confederacy were bankrupt. They eventually merged and became the Norfolk-Western Railroad. During this period, the depot moved about a mile, and a new town of Big Lick was incorporated in 1874. The old settlement was rechristened Old Lick or Gainsborough and would be primarily settled by the newly freed African-Americans in the area.

In 1881, the Shenandoah Rail Road was built and connected the valley to Washington, DC. It was decided then that Big Lick was no longer a suitable name. The town was rechristened Roanoke in 1882 and, in 1884, was incorporated as a city.

The early years of Roanoke were profitable, and the city boomed. In addition to the proximity of the natural resources and mining potential of the Allegany and Blue Ridge Mountains, several large industries, including The American Viscose Plant (at the time one of the largest rayon producers in the world), flourished in the city. The railroad played a large part in the economy, with the Norfolk and Western Railway having their corporate office and steam locomotive shop in Roanoke. The area grew into an important industrial and logistical hub. In addition, the town boasted of the only commercial airport for 100 miles. The war years were profitable, and in 1949, the Mill Mountain Star was installed, and the city's future seemed bright indeed.

The downturn came in the 1950s. 


By 1953, steam engines had given way to diesel engines, and the resulting layoffs from Norfolk and Western devastated the local economy. Additionally, rayon had become nearly obsolete after the development of nylon, and the closing of the American Viscose plant was incredibly destructive to the area's income. 

The city found a lifeline in President Eisenhower's1956 Interstate Highway Act. 

The Interstate Highway Act was a pet project of President Dwight Eisenhower. He had participated in a cross-country caravan early in his US Army career through the (mostly) unmaintained roads of the United States (read about that journey here). He was also very impressed with the European highways (particularly the Autobahn) he had seen during WWII.

The Interstate Highway Act was a hugely transforming piece of legislation; before WWII, most people in the US lived either in a city or on a farm. There weren't the "suburbs" that most of us have become familiar with. After the war (and the dropping of the atomic bomb on the city center of Nagasaki), it became apparent how vulnerable American cities were. They were cut off from one another and densely populated. Inspired by the Autobahn, lawmakers, city planners, and the President began to develop plans to move the bulk of the US population out of city centers. The Interstate Highway Act provided federal funds covering 90 percent of construction costs and would provide a much-needed cash inflow to the people of Roanoke. The city council jumped at the project.

And implemented it in a pure Jim Crow fashion.

In 1955, the city, wielding the 1949 Housing Act, condemned large swaths of the Gainsboro/Old Lick area as "blighted" and leveled more than 1600 homes, businesses, and churches, making way for an Expressway (now I-581) to connect downtown to the newly created 1-81, the international highway that connects Toronto to Mexico City, through Washington DC and which ran alongside highway 11 and old trail system.

The results devastated the downtown area (and I suspect this is what caused the decline of many urban areas), and in 1982, when the railroad closed the corporate offices and the Hotel Roanoke, the city looked very grim.

The people of Roanoke didn't give up on the city, though.  


In 1983, genuine efforts began to revitalize the downtown area. The city created The Center on The Square and worked with Virginia Tech to open a medical college at the local hospital. The city also worked with Norfolk and Western railroad to revamp Hotel Roanoke into a conference center for Virginia Tech.  

The city has made sure to use its historical "crossroads" status to its advantage and become a hub for UPS, and a prime spot for Eastern US regional offices (the city is the midpoint between New York and Atlanta)  

Roanoke has also taken advantage of its proximity to the Appalachian Trail and become a hiker's paradise and developed more than 400 miles of trails (both paved and unpaved) throughout the area. Making it a great place to train for my goal of walking the Camino de Santiago (read about that here)

Another big (and fun)  revitalization project has been the festivals. To bring together what has historically been a fractured city, Roanoke has created a celebration (party) for practically every occasion. So almost every weekend, you can find a community event (party) downtown.  

My favorite festivals (so far, I've only been here a few months) have been "Cruise Williamson," where the entire city comes out (with their classic cars and their low riders and their lifted trucks) and drives Williamson and the city-wide "Floatilla" where everyone grabs their favorite innertube and floats, collectively, down the Roanoke River (Fish, me, and Mini-me #3 actually made the local news for this one!)

Anyway, while the city is still a bit rough around the edges and has a ways to go, it's on its way, and I'm happy that it is our new home.

xoxo a.d. elliott 



a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Roanoke, Virginia. 

In addition to the travel writings at www.takethebackroads.com, you can also read her book reviews at www.riteoffancy.com and US military biographies at www.everydaypatriot.com

Her online gallery can be found at shop.takethebackroads.com

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