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Roanoke Area History

Roanoke's geographical situation has been the key to its development, ringed as it is by mountains with passable gaps on each side. It has been a crossroads since Indian days when those people used buffalo trails through the valley as hunting and fighting ways. Salt licks at the valley's heart drew animals, and Indians to hunt them, as far back as knowledge goes.


 With settlement by the white man in the mid-1700's, roads followed the buffalo trails, one, known as the Great Road, north and south; the other, called the Wilderness Road, east and west. A farming community developed, with a tiny village in the center called Big Lick in reference to the salt licks near by. The Roanoke Valley became one of the pathways for the horse-drawn migration of the 18th and early 19th centuries to Kentucky and mid-west America. In the mid-1800s, 1852 to be exact, the first railroad was laid through the valley, the Virginia and Tennessee going from Norfolk to Memphis, and Big Lick began its growth as a city. Modern transportation east and west thus entered the picture, and the railroad was an important source of supply for the Army of Virginia during the Civil War.


Forty years later, astute Philadelphia businessmen saw the future in the West Virginia coal fields, then just opening up, and realized the need for a means of getting the coal to market. A railroad system was instigated to run south from Pennsylvania and join with the former Virginia and Tennessee RR. The junction promised benefits such as a hotel, a station, railroad shops and houses for workers. The village of Big Lick copped the prize and its future was made. One of the first moves was to change the name from Big Lick to Roanoke; the town was in the Roanoke County and on the Roanoke River.


Growth was phenomenal. In the space of two years, the population went from about 600 to 5,000 and a city began to grow, literally, overtop those salt licks; the railroad took the easiest routes and those lay in the lowest spots where the licks already were. After the largest of these was filled with rock, it became the main street, not to lose its life-giving stream until the early 20th century when it was finally covered over; it still runs beneath the city.


The years have brought continued growth, until now Roanoke is the center of a population of 100,000. Airlines make the city a crossroads now instead of railroads, and a diversified business climate has succeeded the dominance of the railroad in the city's development. The railroad, now the Norfolk-Southern, has moved its main offices to Norfolk, but maintains a presence still with its machine shops and a new downtown office building. The city has become, not only the business center of Southwest Virginia, but the medical center as well. Its latest thrust is towards the revitalization of its downtown, an area decimated by the typical 20th century proliferation of suburban malls. The historic, regenerated City Farmers Market is proving a lodestone for restaurants and small businesses."


-Written by Clare S. White- Retired Newspaper Woman and Historian