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History of Roanoke

Known as the "Capital of the Blue Ridge," and a crossroads for commerce, the City of Roanoke's history began in the 1740s. Mark Evans and Tasker Tosh came from Pennslyvania and took up land near the salt licks where Indian and animal trails crossed in the center of the valley.

For generations, those salt marshes, or licks as they were called, had been a gathering place for buffalo, elk and deer, as well as for the Indians who hunted them. The salt marshes were to lend their name to the first village in the Roanoke Valley which started on the east-west path as Gainsborough in 1834; the town soon came to be known as Big Lick.

Roanoke County was formed out of Botetourt County in 1838, with a county population of approximately 5,000. There was an unknown, but certainly not a large, number of slaves in the area. The town of Salem became the county seat and boasted a population of about 200, with Big Lick numbering about 50 residents. The even smaller community of Vinton was to the east of Big Lick connected by a narrow brick road.

The railroad came to the valley in 1852, but missed Big Lick. So the little Town moved to the tracks, taking its name with it. The original town became Old Lick. In 1874, the new center was chartered as the town of Big Lick.

Seven years later, with the coming of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad, Big Lick was renamed Roanoke for the river and the county. Roanoke was derived from the Indian word "Rawrenock," a name for the shell beads worn by the Indians and used as trade goods.

In 1882, Roanoke became a crossroads for the railroad, which eventually became the Norfolk and Western Railway. This marked the start of the town's rapid growth, leading to its chartered as the City of Roanoke in 1884. Its historic market, which also began in these early years, remains vibrant as one of the oldest in the country and still is an anchor of downtown commerce.

Roanoke is now a center for transportation, distribution, trade, manufacturing, health care, entertainment, recreation, attractions and conventions. Thrice awarded the "All-America City" designation.

Roanoke also has been named the "Festival City". Festivals include Roanoke Festival In the Park, Downtown Roanoke's Railway Festival, Henry Street Festival, Vinton's Dogwood Festival, The Virginia Championship Chili Cook-off and Strawberry Festival, to name a few.

Roanoke is a center with attractions for Center-In-The-Square, a multi-cultural complex housing a professional theatre, planetarium, and museums showcasing history, science and art. Other attractions are Mill Mountain Zoo, the Virginia Museum of Transportation, and the Harrison Museum of African-American Culture.

The city's most visible attraction is its star, a 100-foot-high illuminated steel and concrete structure, which has been a beacon at the top of Mill Mountain for more than 40 years. It stands as a "symbol of the friendliness, industrial and civic progress of Roanoke". Press releases identified Roanoke as the "Star City of the South". Some nights, the star's glow can be seen for a 60-mile radius and is a landmark for night-time aviators.

Numerous attractions are within an hour's drive of the city including Dixie Caverns, The Salem Museum, The Natural Bridge, the historic towns of Fincastle and Lexington, and Peaks of Otter and Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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The Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau
101 Shenandoah Avenue NE | Roanoke, VA 24016
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