The railroad’s influence on Roanoke’s history, culture, food and beer.

on May 24, 2017

Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of Transportation, Roanoke, Virginia.

“From trains to brains” is the talk around Roanoke. We were once a bonafide railroad town. Today, we’re remaking our city into a hub of innovative medical research.  Regardless of how we’ll reinvent our city, we’ll never be able to shake our railroad roots. The crossroads of our local history, culture, food, and beer belong to the railroad. Here’s why: 

The Big Lick sign post in 1880. Courtesy of the Norfolk & Western Historical Society, Roanoke, Virginia

Economic Development: In 1882, Roanoke was nothing more than Big Lick, a small outpost on the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad. Word traveled to the tiny town that a new railroad called the Norfolk & Western (N&W) was looking for a new home for its headquarters and shops.  The leaders of Big Lick gathered their resources and sent its first “economic development” team to meet with Norfolk & Western management.

The residents of Big Lick pooled their money and offered the N&W cash to offset the cost of laying track and building new shops and general office buildings. The land was donated or sold at a bargain.(The land where the Hotel Roanoke sits was given to the railroad. How cool is that?) 

The N&W took Big Lick up on its offer and soon after Big Lick became Roanoke. Our city grew so fast that it earned the name “Magic City.”

Roanoke hasn’t stopped its economic development efforts. We’re now the Star City of the South — and it’s because we’ve earned our gold star in creative thinking, working together, and seeing what others can’t.

You can learn about the economic development of Roanoke on Tour Roanoke’s Downtown Food and Cultural Tour.

Innovation: Like the main railroad line that runs through the center of Roanoke, innovation is the main artery pumping new ideas, energy, and a we-can-do-it-better attitude throughout the city. 

The Big Three: The Norfolk & Western Class J, Class A, and Class Y6a steam locomotives. Courtesy of the Norfolk & Western Historical Society, Roanoke, Virginia

Roanoke wasn’t just a railroad town; we were THE railroad town. The Norfolk and Western became known for its innovation, ingenuity, and superior design and engineering. The Norfolk & Western created the pinnacle of steam technology.  No one since has been able to improve on the design or engineering since.

Examples of this excellence can still be seen today at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, home of the Norfolk & Western Class J 611, Class A 1218, and Class Y6a 2156 (which is on loan from the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis.)

The N&W Class J 611 was restored in 2015 and pulls excursions across the Blue Ridge Mountains. If you want to see true power, watch the 611 in action. Better yet, get on board a 611 Excursion train.

Immigrants worked in the Norfolk & Western East End Shops at the turn of the century. Courtesy of the Norfolk & Western Historical Society, Roanoke, Virginia

Immigrants: The railroad quickly transformed Roanoke’s economy from agricultural to industrial. And the city needed craftsmen to build and maintain the trains and enterprising immigrants to open stores and restaurants. Immigrants poured in from every continent. 

With tens of thousands of immigrants came new ideas, languages, customs, music, and foods.   Every year, the annual Local Colors Festival honors our immigrant past and highlights all the cultures that make Roanoke unique.

Cuisine: With immigrants, came flavor. While other cities have a signature taste, Roanoke boasts of a worldwide menu of traditional dishes from all over the world. Small, out of the way, grocers dot our neighborhoods, allowing us to go global without leaving the city. You can taste our railroad roots during on Tour Roanoke’s Downtown Food and Cultural Tour. 

The Virginia Brewing Co. at the turn of the 20th Century. Courtesy of the Roanoke Public Library, Virginia Room

Beer. Yes, beer: In 1889, a German immigrant named L.A. Scholz landed in Roanoke and decided the booming railroad town needed a brewery. He founded Virginia Brewing and rolled out 50,000 barrels of beer per year soon after. Built along the Norfolk & Western rail lines, the brewery shipped its product throughout Virginia and West Virginia and into North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Sadly, the beer stopped flowing in 1912 when Prohibition made Virginia go dry. (Prohibition is when another Blue Ridge Mountain staple — moonshine — took off.)

Today, Roanoke is rediscovering its brewery past with new breweries rolling out the barrels of craft beer year after year. (Moonshine is making a comeback, too. But that’s another blog post.) 

Celebrating and sharing this bond of local culture, food, and beer is what Tour Roanoke is all about. Join us for a Downtown Food and Cultural Tour or a Roanoke Craft Beer Tour and learn more about this beautiful railroad-turned-medical-innovation city.

Receive the latest info & specials

Our monthly eNewsletter includes restaurant, local events, and area food, craft beer and wine news.

Sign Up