Rolling Through Roanoke
Find Trains, Traditions And Mountain History In Star City
Railroad lines weave strategically through Roanoke and help define this “Star City” of Western Virginia. Roanoke boasts a population of nearly 100,000 and takes its nickname from the 88-foot-high Mill Mountain Star, shining in lights since 1949. The star stands aside the M. Carl Andrews Overlook, where you can feast on a bird’s eye view of the sprawling Roanoke Valley, centered by a restaurant-rich downtown and ringed by the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Lying less than five hours from the heart of Coastal Virginia, Roanoke has both historic and geologic ties to the coast. It’s been the lifeblood of Western Virginia’s coal-fueled railroad industry on the main line of tracks leading east to Norfolk. And its Roanoke River flows southeast through big lakes called Smith Mountain, Buggs Island and Gaston, eventually emptying at the Outer Banks of North Carolina’s Roanoke Island.
At Roanoke’s former freight station, you can discover planes, trains and automobiles in the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Outside, the 1950 steam locomotive N&W Class J 611 stands on display. Inside, a model train station uses one of the earliest names for the city—“Big Lick.”
Nearby, along Shenandoah Avenue, the O. Winston Link Museum makes use of the city’s former passenger train station as a showcase for the late Mr. Link’s historic photographs of railroads across Virginia, especially steam trains along the Norfolk & Western Railway.
Hotel Roanoke stands guard over the town and all of its trains, majestically rising from meticulously manicured grounds. This 1882 hotel boasts Florentine marble floors, frescoes and vaulted ceilings plus 331 guest rooms and a conference center. It’s luxurious. Bellhops greet you at the entrance. And it’s a must that you taste the hotel’s famous peanut soup. “We used to hold the recipe tight to our chest,” says the hotel’s marketing manager, Michael Quonce, “but now we give it out as much as possible.”
For the best in breakfasts, head to The Roanoker, a restaurant celebrating more than 70 years in business. “People come here out of tradition,” says the general manager, Samantha Craft. “The biscuits, the gravy, the fried chicken—we use the same recipes we started out with. It’s traditional family food.”
The Texas Tavern marks another longstanding landmark. Standing downtown on West Church Avenue, the tiny Texas Tavern has been open since 1930. And it remains open all night long—with 10 stools and a simple menu offering hamburgers, hot dogs and a sandwich called a “Cheesy Western.”
Discovering vintage murals—with advertisements for the Virginia Carriage Factory or the National Biscuit Company—can be part of the downtown district’s charm. One mural, near the Taubman Museum of Art, along Salem Avenue, attracts attention to the long-running Roanoke City Market, open since 1882.
Want cupcakes? Check out Roanoke’s Grandin Village, where Pennie Ahuero whips up as many as 80 flavors of cupcakes at her shop, named for her signature dish—the Viva la Cupcake. “I bake that every day,” she says. “It has four chocolates in it.”
Nearby, the 1930s-era Grandin Theatre centers Grandin Village. “The movie theater is a big draw,” says Linda Steadman, the owner of a dog-friendly book shop called Too Many Books. Here, along Grandin Road, you can browse for thousands of titles ranging from rarities to new paperbacks. JoAnn Lampros, a sales clerk, laughs when asked just how many thousands of books are neatly shelved inside. “Too many,” she says, quoting the store name. “Military history is a big seller.”
Just off 13th Street, yet still near the heart of Grandin Village, you can meet the cast of the DIY Network’s Salvage Dawgs reality TV show, which chronicles the adventures of Black Dog Salvage. This unique Roanoke business reclaims, repurposes and resells all kinds of old mantles, doors, windows, stained glass, wrought iron, vintage plumbing, tiles, gates and assorted spare parts.
Once, the crew headed to Norfolk, says store employee and series star Tay Whiteside. “We went to a big, ship salvage yard, and that’s where we found the S.S. Zuni, which was a Coast Guard Cutter. It was kind of what we do but Marine-related on a huge scale. It was kind of cool to see.”
Another time, the Salvage Dawgs cruised to a Norfolk landmark known as The Painted Lady in Ghent. “It was an old tea room, and the whole place was painted pink and purple,” Whiteside says. “It was cool. There was this big bar and really kind of elegant-looking tea room. We took out the bar.”
Salvaging and refurbishing could also be a theme for the Center in the Square— a seven-story, 200,000-square-foot cultural complex——with a new deck that overlooks the skyline of Roanoke, including the 21-story Wells Fargo Tower and the Hotel Roanoke. The Center in the Square houses the Mill Mountain Theatre, a professional acting company that stages shows in its 340-seat Trinkle Auditorium. This institution celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014 with a season of shows featuring The Wizard of Oz, opening on Aug. 1; To Kill a Mockingbird, opening on Oct. 1; and Children of Eden, opening on Dec. 3.
Center in the Square reopened in 2013 thanks to a $30 million renovation, which helped breathe new life into the city’s museums celebrating mountain history, African-American culture, and science, including dinosaurs.
Today, an indoor butterfly garden is housed on the fourth floor of Center in the Square inside the Science Museum of Western Virginia. Each week, butterflies are added from places across the world.
“The butterflies themselves have a lifespan averaging a few days up to a couple of weeks, although some of them—especially the fruit-eating butterflies—can go on for several weeks here,” says Jim Rolling, the executive director of the Science Museum of Western Virginia. “The nectar-errs, the ones who feed off of flowers, they’re essentially getting sugar water, which is about the nutrient quality of Kool-Aid. So if you’re Kool-Aid drinker, you won’t live too long. If you’re a fruit-eater, you’ll do better.”
Extending Your Getaway
Black Dog Salvage
Center in the Square
O. Winston Link Museum
Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau
Virginia Museum of Transportation