Like many of America’s population centers, Roanoke can thank the railroads for its initial growth from a settlement to a city. Today’s Roanoke initially went by the name of “Big Lick,” after the area’s salt marshes. No more than a village at the time, its growth commenced in the late 1800s with the arrival of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad. At this point the town’s citizens decided to change its name to match that of the river that flows through the valley. The town’s current name of Roanoke is derived from the Indian word “Rawrenock,” a shell bead that was utilized for trade and worn by Native Americans. The railway that would become the Norfolk and Western helped Roanoke become a major transportation center.
With a population of just under 100,000, Roanoke lays claim to being named an “All-American City” on five occasions. A thriving downtown offers galleries, museums, theaters, hotels, and condominiums, in addition to the usual assortment of banks, restaurants, stores, and offices. Highlights of the city include:
The Historic Market District – The downtown center boasts a thriving City Market that dates to 1882. Stands sheltered under blue and white striped awnings are open year-round to offer local produce, baked goods, a few meats, and handicrafts from local artisans. The City Market Building that once housed the farmers’ market has been renovated and now serves as home to several restaurants.
Center in the Square – An large downtown building that once housed a farmer’s supply company is now home to cultural and science organizations and museums including the Science Museum of Western Virginia, the History Museum & Historical Society of Western Virginia, the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, and the Mill Mountain Theatre. The Center’s atrium is highlighted by a 6,000 gallon living coral-reef aquarium.
Galleries – Appalachia Press, Gallery 108, The Market Gallery, and Signature 9 Gallery, along with the Taubman Museum of Art are accessible to downtown visitors. The latter, designed with a unique architectural style, serves as a center for the visual arts. Collections on display during our visit included a variety of Faberge items and Judith Leiber handbags. Art Venture, a large studio in the Taubman, offers children and parents an opportunity to experiment and create their own pieces of artwork.
O. Winston Link Museum – Located in the old passenger train depot, the museum houses the Roanoke Valley Visitor Information Center and is an excellent starting point for a tour of the city. The Link Museum is comprised of seven galleries of Link’s famous steam locomotive photographs. It has been said that his photos are “vignettes into history and sociology of life in the late 1950’s along the Norfolk & Western Railway.” A 30-minute film introduces Link and describes the process he utilized to produce his fascinating photographs.
Virginia Museum of Transportation – Housed in the old Norfolk & Western freight station, the focus here is on the area’s railroad history, although the collection has been expanded to include antique cars, trucks, and buses, with aviation to be added soon. The building houses superb model train displays along with other train related exhibits. The rail yard showcases over 50 pieces of rolling stock, including a collection of diesel locomotives and two of Norfolk & Western’s advanced steam locomotives.