ROANOKE, Va. — Nestled in a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a lively city where a farmers' market does a busy trade in the middle of downtown, surrounded by cafes, fair-trade stores, boutiques and several museums.
Roanoke is a perfect place for a vacation. Called the Star City of the South, Roanoke started as a settlement called Big Lick — named for the salt marshes that attracted deer. The area was settled in 1740s but not chartered until 1874. Its name was changed to Roanoke in the early 1880s after the river that runs through the town.
When the Virginia and The Norfolk and Western Railway built a line running through the town to connect Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley, the town became a hub for other lines like the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. Factories opened to build the steam engines that pulled them and Roanoke grew into a bustling town, built on trains and the passengers and goods they brought in.
Visitors can see the history of trains, planes and automobiles at the Virginia Museum of Transportation and a beautifully told story of steam trains at the O. Winston Link Museum
The Virginia Museum of Transportation has a large garage full of all kinds of cars, from Model T's to VW bugs to Ford Mustangs. The airplane area shows aviation from all angles but the biggest part of the museum, literally and figuratively, is the train exhibits. One room is full of toy trains making their rounds on several levels of tracks and is fun to watch. Outdoors are engines of all kinds.
The Class A 1218 was the last steam engine running in the U.S. Its final journeys were chronicled by photographer O. Winston Link. Link's museum shares space with the Roanoke Visitor's Center.
His museum is a pleasant half-mile stroll from the Virginia Transportation Museum on the Rail Walk, an outdoor museum with plenty of railroad signage, displays and whistles to play with, and benches made of train axles to relax and watch trains roll through the city.
Watch a short documentary about the man and the steam engine and how he shot amazing photographs of engines and trains traveling throughout the area. It's a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man who knew the public would miss the mournful wail of a steam train whistle as it traveled its route.
The city got its nickname, “Star City of the South,” in 1949 when downtown merchants built a large lighted star on Mill Mountain at Christmastime. They hoped the star would get shoppers out and generate Christmas sales and were delighted to discover residents wanted the star lit year round. It's the largest standing star in the United States.