Originally a station for transferring freight between trains and trucks, the museum today has exhibits of transportation by road, rail, and aviation. Displays include an antique auto collection with the oldest dating back to 1904, a four-tier O-gauge model train layout depicting the region, and even a model circus.
Once upon a time, there was a notable salt lick near southwestern Virginia's Blue Ridge. It drew animals, which in turn attracted hunters and eventually a settlement developed complete with train tracks. When the railroad decided to build a fancy hotel there in the late 1800s, however, they decided "Big Lick" wasn't a very classy name, so they renamed the community "Roanoke" after the local tribe.
Over the years, Roanoke became a major railroad town manufacturing and maintaining steam engines. The rail yards are still important, but today the leading employer is the healthcare industry. The restoration and renovation of downtown have transformed it into a desirable living area for locals and an entertaining destination for visitors. Museums, restaurants, art galleries and recreational opportunities all combine to make Roanoke an enjoyable getaway or stopping off point when traveling I-81.
Start at the Visitor Center, housed in the former railroad station. Here you'll find brochures,
information and personal recommendations from the greeter. This is also home to the Link Museum where a video introduces the remarkable work of O. Winston Link, a renowned photographer of steam engines. Some 300 of his striking photos are on view and making it well worth a stop.
The nearby Hotel Roanoke - that railroad hotel originally built in the late 1800s - is an elegant lodging from the years when rail travel was both stylish and popular. Its dining room is open to the public with a very nice lunch buffet. Be sure to sample its signature dishes of peanut soup or spoonbread. A glass-enclosed skyway over the train tracks takes visitors to the downtown area.
The Historical Roanoke City Farmers Market - launched in 1882 and Virginia's oldest continuous farmers market - is open every day but Christmas and New Year and has as many as 60 vendors on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Permanent stalls offer flowers, veggies and artisan works. Some vendors have had their spots for years.
There are also many downtown eateries ranging from Thai to Cuban, and from Local Roots with farm-fresh regional selections to Blue 5 with an extensive microbrew list and nightly live music. The former City Market Building, with distinctive mosaics at the entrances, has recently been converted into a food court with a variety of grab-and-go food choices to eat at tables in the bright interior or, in some cases, at outdoor sidewalk seating.
There are several art galleries and downtown is punctuated by the dramatic architecture of the Taubman Museum. "It's a wonderful calling card for Roanoke," declares docent Judy Bishop, "a piece of art inside and out and amazing in any weather." Without the overwhelming collections of larger institutions, Bishop says, "You have time to engage in this museum." The soaring windowed lobby has wide stairs leading to the second floor with exhibits from contemporary to early American art plus Art Venture - a large activity room for kids. Every Saturday is free admission for all.
From the Taubman, it's an easy stroll along the interesting Railwalk where visitors can trigger a train horn and lower a crossing gate. The walk leads to the official Virginia Museum of Transportation which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Originally a station for transferring freight between trains and trucks, the museum today has exhibits of transportation by road, rail, and aviation. Displays include an antique auto collection with the oldest dating back to 1904, a four-tier O-gauge model train layout depicting the region, and even a model circus. Trains, with specially designed railcars for equipment and animals, enabled circuses to travel easily from city to city.
There are more than 50 pieces of rolling stock including electric, diesel and steam locomotives. "This engine was built in two weeks," boasts Charles, a docent, with one hand resting on the cowcatcher of Engine 1218. The rush job was in response to an urgent need during WWII.
Usually it took 6-8 months. "Most powerful steam engine in the world," he brags, explaining it was entirely forged and assembled in Roanoke except for the roller bearings and firebox doors. "It could go 80 mph, hauled 180 freight cars of 50-70 tons each and traveled 15-20,000 miles a month."
The tender, he explains, carried about 30 tons of coal and a good fireman handling the auto-feed was essential because Engine 1218 burned 4-7 tons an hour. "The better the fireman the better the engine gets down the road."
To make like a local, hit The Roanoker Restaurant, an institution for more than 70 years, with some servers working there for more than four decades. Then head up Mill Mountain with its zoo, wildflower gardens and hiking paths. There's a lookout beneath Roanoke's iconic 100-foot-tall star, erected in 1949 as the world's largest man-made star and still illuminated nightly. The view of the city below and the Blue Ridge beyond spell the beginning or end of a perfect day.
IF YOU GO:
Lodging ranges from the elegant Roanoke Hotel to B&Bs to national motel chains. The Visitor Center has many publications including a magazine called The Menu which provides information and menu samples of more than two dozen eateries. For more information visit www.VisitRoanokeVa.com. This website is also enhanced to be accessed via smartphone. Included are maps, festival listings, special package offers for everything from lodging to dining, shopping and golf as well as a virtual visitors guide.
Lynn and Glenn Pribus travel from their home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo #1 - Roanoke's Railwalk portrays its history as a rail town building and maintain
locomotives. (CREDIT: Lynn Pribus)
Photo #2 - A docent at Virginia's Transportation Museum tells visitors that this enormous
engine was built in only two weeks during World War II. (CREDIT: Lynn Pribus)