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Roanoke, VA, Is For (Train) Lovers

Virginia is for lovers, as the long-held state slogan goes–and Roanoke is for train lovers. The city grew up from a small railroad town to the exciting, culturally rich metropolis it is today.

(My story and photos, inspired by a hosted media visit, were published by Journal and Topics Media Group on September 12, 2018.)

After nearly four decades without a passenger train in sight, Amtrak has the ticket to Roanoke.

The new Northeast Regional route, which links travelers from the Blue Ridge Mountain city all the way to Boston and points in between, is the latest chapter in a lengthy and colorful railway history. It began in the late 1800s when a different railroad came to town and transformed a tiny hamlet into a booming railway hub. Those days are long gone, but the legends and legacy live on in Roanoke’s cultural DNA.

Whether you arrive by rail or not, here’s how to have a train-centric getaway to Roanoke, Virginia:

Two vintage trains standing side-by-side.
Vintage locomotives and other rolling stock are on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke.

Fast-track yourself to the Hotel Roanoke, Curio Collection by Hilton, a grand dame of a hotel with a storied railroad past.

You see, back when Roanoke was called Big Lick, word came that the upstart Norfolk & Western Railway was shopping for a headquarters. After town leaders successfully lobbied for their own, they changed the name to Roanoke (no relation to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, which was in North Carolina). The railroad quickly drew immigrant craftsmen to build and maintain trains and tracks, miners to produce the coal to power the steam engines, and cooks and brewers to sustain the workforce.

Visitors arrived in droves, and in 1882, the railway built the first version of the hotel beside the tracks.

Canopied entrance to a Tudor-style brick and stone building
Canopied entrance to the Hotel Roanoke, built in Tudor Revival style, Roanoke.

Over the years, the hotel was expanded, rebuilt after a fire, restored and renewed multiple times. It ultimately achieved a level of grandeur befitting the Gilded Age. The architecture is Tudor Revival, and the interior was lavished with exquisite antiques, dazzling chandeliers and artful masterpieces. The Hotel Roanoke was the social epicenter of the region, attracting luminaries and dignitaries from around the world.

By the late 1970s, as interstate highways ribboned the nation and Americans embraced their automobiles, train travel faltered. Passenger service to and from Roanoke ended in 1979. The fate of the hotel soon followed. Occupancy nose-dived, and the building needed costly repairs. The railroad, which had become the Norfolk Southern Corporation, shuttered the hotel in 1989 and gave it to the Virginia Tech Foundation for possible redevelopment. The invaluable contents were auctioned off.

A GRAND RE-OPENING FOR HOTEL ROANOKE

After a massive multi-million-dollar fundraising and renovation project, the Hotel Roanoke reopened to resplendent glory in 1993. Many of the original furnishings were repurchased and returned to their former home.

 The restored lobby of the Hotel Roanoke preserves its past.

Today the hotel pulsates with new life and preserved memories. The 330 guest rooms are 19th Century elegant with luxurious 21st Century amenities. The renowned Regency Room, the fine-but-unpretentious restaurant, serves up its signature Peanut soup, Spoonbread, Fried Oysters and a much-lauded Sunday Brunch. The ceiling of the Palm Court lobby is painted to show the constellations as they appeared in the skies the day the first train came to Roanoke in 1852.

The Hotel Roanoke is a member of Historic Hotels of America.

Ask for the Train Lover’s Package, which includes accommodations overlooking the railroad tracks, breakfast for two in the Regency Room, and tickets to the O. Winston Link Museum and the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

COLLECTIONS OF TRAINS AND ART

The Link Museum is footsteps from the hotel and across Shenandoah Avenue. Housed in the former Norfolk & Western Railway passenger station, it is the repository for the remarkable black-and-white train photography of its namesake. Link was a New York commercial photographer and civil engineer who developed a passion for the Blue Ridge region in general and the railway in specific. Between 1955 and 1960, years that corresponded with the transition from the steam to diesel eras, he produced thousands of photographs and audio recordings.

Panoramic train photo by O. Winston Link at his namesake museum in Roanoke.

Link is most noted for his dramatic night shots, which he achieved by strategically placing dozens of reflected flashbulbs around his subjects and timing them to go off simultaneously. Among them is the massive 40-foot by 11-foot panorama of a Class S1 switching locomotive and its crew.

To get to the Virginia Museum of Transportation from the hotel, take the Market Square Walkway, a glass-enclosed pedestrian bridge that leads safely over the railroad tracks. If you’re lucky, you might catch a train rumbling beneath your feet! After crossing to the south side of the walkway, look up to the ceiling. There’s an enormous painted steel sculpture called “Beneath the Roundhouse” by Edwin White. A roundhouse is a circular building with a mechanical turntable used to move and service locomotives. Most are defunct today.

“Beneath the Roundhouse” sculpture by Edwin White.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation is located in the century-old Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station. Within its collections are more than 50 pieces of rolling stock, including steam and diesel locomotives, freight cars, passenger cars and cabooses. The Class A steam locomotive, Number 1218, was built in Roanoke during the 1940s, and is the only survivor of its class. The Class G-1 steam locomotive, Number 6, was built in 1897. It is the oldest piece in the collection. The museum also has automotive, aviation, transit and other artifacts.

Outdoor train pavilion at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, Roanoke.

BRAKING FOR FOOD AND GOOD CHEER

By now, you must be getting hungry and thirsty. Roanoke’s diverse offerings of restaurants, bistros, cafes, bars and tasting rooms also share connections to the past.

The Great 611 Steak Company is named after the Transportation Museum’s Class J passenger engine, built in Roanoke in the 1940s. The restaurant looks and feels like a train depot, and its signature cocktail is the Great 611, a whiskey sour.

The River and Rail Restaurant is a Southern bistro featuring scratch cooking and locally sourced ingredients in a former storefront pharmacy.

For libations, grab a free Cheers Trail Passport via text or email on the Virginia’s Blue Ridge website. You’ll get discounts and deals at the many participating breweries, wineries and distilleries. Earn a free Cheers Trail t-shirt by checking into a minimum of five locations.

The scenic Blue Ridge Parkway near Roanoke.

Learn more about Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge. ###

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