By Renée S. Gordon
“A haven of solitude.” –Thomas Jefferson
The western Virginia city of Roanoke is situated in the Roanoke Valley at the southern tip of the Shenandoah Valley amidst the Alleghany and Blue Ridge Mountains. Area salt licks attracted animals who left traces that Native Americans used as hunting and trade routes creating a crossroads for Indian, and eventually colonial commerce and migration. Two of America’s most significant roads met here, the east/west Wilderness Road and the north/south Great Road.
First contact between Europeans and Indians took place in 1671 when the Robert Fallam and Thomas Batts expedition entered the region but the earliest documented European settlement dates from the 1740s. The settlement did not last and it was not until nearly 100-years later that Big Lick, a village named for the salt lick in the area, was established. Big Lick was incorporated in 1874, the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad came to town shortly thereafter and in 1882 the name was changed to Roanoke. The name is from “Rawrenock”, the Algonquin name for the Roanoke River meaning “shell money” or “wampum.” It is believed that shells were gathered in the river for use in trade. Roanoke was incorporated two years later.
Roanoke may have become known as the “Star City of the South” because of its proximity to the Shenandoah Valley, referred to by Native Americans as the “Daughter of the Stars.” November 23, 1949 the mayor of the city lit an 88.5-ft., 10,000-lb., Roanoke Star atop the, 1,847-ft., inner city, Mill Mountain. It was originally illuminated in white and was to be dismantled after the holidays. The Star has become a city symbol and, after September 11th, it remains lit year round in red, white and blue. It is the world’s largest, man-made, freestanding neon star. The panoramic view from the overlook takes in the entire Roanoke Valley. The Mill Mountain Zoo and Discovery Center are also situated atop the mountain. www.mmzoo.org
The award-winning Hotel Roanoke is the perfect place to stay while visiting the city because of its historic landmark status, ideal location and exemplary service. It stood alone in a field when it was constructed in 1882 and the city grew up around it. The hotel offers three dining options, spa, fitness center, meeting and conference rooms and newly renovated accommodations. Of particular note are a series of seven murals depicting Virginia history on the lobby level. www.hotelroanoke.com
A few steps from The Roanoke is the half-mile David and Susan Goode Railroad Walk that both interprets the history of the railroad and connects a series of museums and attractions. Five informational plaques at the trail’s start give an overview of the history. Benches along the path are forged from train wheels and a fountain midway is constructed of three crankshafts. Every few feet there are interactive displays that allow you to test a railroad signal, hear train sounds and learn about train equipment. www.downtownroanoke.org
The Virginia Museum of Transportation, located inside the former Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station, is at the terminus of the walkway. The complex consists of an indoor museum and outdoor exhibits including the only remaining Class A #1218 steam engine. The collection is made up of more than 2300 artifacts and the largest grouping of diesel locomotives in the South. The museum shop is a collector’s dream. www.vmt.org
Ogle Winston Link used his prodigious photographic skills to document the last great steam trains of the Norfolk & Western Railroad. In 2004 the O. Winston Link Museum opened in the 1905 N & W Railroad passenger station. A collection of 300 of his works is on display as well as personal items and an outstanding orientation film. Link died of a heart attack in 2001, outside a train station. www.linkmusem.org
The surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains are reflected in the jagged forms of the deconstructionist-style Taubman Museum of Art. The façade is made of patinated zinc and glass and soars skyward and the 81,000-sq. ft. of gallery space mounts works from the 2,050 piece permanent collection and visiting exhibitions. www.taubmanmuseum.org
Located along the Railwalk is the First Street Bridge, renamed the Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge in 2008, once the dividing line between the white and black Roanoke communities. On one side of the pedestrian bridge stands a 7-ft. bronze statue of King looking toward and reaching out to the black Gainsboro community. The statue stands on a pedestal with a carved scene at its base in a plaza inscribed with quotes. When seated on the surrounding benches visitors can hear portions of his speeches.
Grandin Village is a 1920s neighborhood that is filled with an eclectic array of businesses that don’t exist in most cities and the area is well worth a visit. Three of the most unique and fun sites are Black Dog Salvage, 40,000-sq. ft. of architectural antiquities and architectural designs, the Grandin Theatre, a 1930s movie theater with an interior design reminiscent of the Great Hall of a castle and Cups, a coffee shop with locally made pastries, artwork, great ambience and the best coffee in the city. www.blackdogsalvage.com and www.grandintheatre.com
One of the things that make Roanoke such an outstanding destination is its proximity to a wealth of activities and natural wonders in the surrounding region. Visitors can select from outdoor adventures, ambles along the numerous trails or one of several intriguing sites. www.visitbedford.com.
The Natural Bridge must be seen to be believed. The Monacan Indians called it “The Great Mystery,” and looked upon it as a spiritual place. The limestone and dolomite structure is 215-ft tall, 60-ft. long, 100-ft. wide, 50-ft. taller than Niagara Falls, is actually the roof of an ancient cavern. The bridge is. In the 1770s King George III deeded the land to Jefferson and both he and Washington visited the site. Patrick Henry, a freed African American was Jefferson’s overseer of the property and he is the first to have charged admission to enter.
Tickets are purchased in the visitors’ center and tours are handicapped accessible. The complex includes a wax museum, caverns, a gift shop and an authentic 1700s Monacan village. A sound and light show is offered in the evenings. www.naturalbridgeva.com
Jefferson so loved the region that he built a retreat at Poplar Forest, the first of only two octagonal homes in the country. The plantation was inherited from his wife’s family and the house was built while he was president. The foundation was laid in 1806 and his first visit occurred in 1809. The exterior walls of the Palladian Villa are the original brick while the service wing is restored.
The guided tour begins on the porch and continues through the interior, an elongated octagon around a central square. His bedroom is a replica of the one in Monticello. The dining room is 20-ft. high and 20-ft. square with a magnificent 16-ft. by 3-ft. skylight. The furnishings throughout are replicas. The enslaved brother of Sally, John Hemings, crafted the woodwork and roof.
On the grounds one can visit the site of the two-family slave cabins. Jefferson inherited 11 slaves but by his death there were 60-100. Their story is told in the exhibit area, a service wing adjacent to the main house. Special programs and activities are regularly scheduled. www.poplarforest.org
The 2001 outdoor National D-Day Memorial is one of the most moving monuments in the country. It honors the “valor, fidelity and sacrifice of the Allied Forces that took part in the landing at Normandy, France on 6 June 1944.” Covering 9-acres of an 88-acre site in Bedford County, it was selected because the county had the greatest number of per capita losses in the US. Company A of the 116th National Guard contained 172 men, 35 of which were “Bedford Boys.” These men trained together and were in the first wave of men on Omaha Beach, 19 of the Bedford Boys were killed instantly. The story of two Bedford brothers was the basis for “Saving Private Ryan.”
The memorial is divided into three chronological sections. The Planning of Operation Overlord is represented by a garden decorated in the shape of a shoulder patch, surrounded by busts of the six commanders, with a statue of Eisenhower in a small rotunda. A copy of the operation’s map is displayed created by an American toy company as a jigsaw puzzle so that areas could be shown on a need to know basis.
The Operation features a magnificent sculptural display depicting D-Day at H-Hour. The hour, 6:30 AM, was chosen because the men had be able to see to avoid the 6-million pieces of junk Rommel had placed in the water as a precaution, 2-million pieces were mined.
Gray Plaza contains the heart of the monument, the storming of the beach. A large pool has figures wading onto the shore while waterspouts simulate the sight and sound of strafing gunfire. A path takes visitors onto a bridge from which you obtain a view as if standing on the shore.
The third section is dedicated to the push toward Paris and victory. A single soldier scales a bunker and an upright rifle hung with a helmet and dog tags symbolizes the fallen. The monument slopes upward and ends beneath a 44-ft., 6-inch tall arch of Minnesota granite surrounded by flags of all the countries and plaques detailing their contributions. As you look out over the memorial you can see the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance and you can’t help but understand their sacrifice. www.dday.org
Roanoke should be on your summer list of destinations. Special offers are available to holders of the RED, Regional Entertainment Discounts, Card. Information is online and at 1-800-635-5535. www.visitroanokeva.com
I wish you smooth and stellar travels!
Read Dr. Colita Fairfax’s latest information on Fort Monroe and view a video on the Civil War Contraband Movement at http://www.fortmonroeva.com/category/history.