Exploring 'The Star' of Virginia

LYSA ALLMAN-BALDWIN | 11/12/2012, 12:58 p.m.
In our first exploration in Roanoke, Va.--located at the southern tip of the Shenandoah Valley--we...
Exploring 'The Star' of Virginia

After crossing the railroad tracks via the Market Square Walkway, you will come to the O. Winston Link Museum, which also plays an integral role in the city's railroad history. The museum is an homage to its namesake, Winston Link (1914-2001), a prolific photographer and photo editor who made his mark during WWII for his dramatic images of locomotives, industrial interiors, factories and related entities that expertly impart the rich culture and heritage of the Norfolk & Western Railway, the last major steam railroad in the country.

Across the street, you can't help but notice the majestic Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center. The hotel itself, built in 1882, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and originally nicknamed "The Grand Old Lady," is an elegant, Tudor-style, 331-guest room and 19-suite hotel that exudes period opulence and luxury at every turn. It features soaring vaulted ceilings, awe-inspiring frescoes, Florentine marble floors and other grand details and stylings. While there, we enjoyed a sumptuous meal in the Regency Room, which serves a lunch buffet that is absolutely to die for! Be sure to try their renowned spoon bread and peanut soup offerings.

Another wonderful place to get a good grasp of the city's railroad history is at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. I have to say that even if you think trains are not really your thing, this is a fascinating attraction, which is home to the largest collection of diesel and steam locomotives in the country, and boasts an expansive collection also encompassing over 2,500 aviation, automotive and transit artifacts. The museum yard here is amazing as well, where you get a real sense of the power and significance of these massive vehicles from standing next to them.

Bridging the Gap

Although the demographics in Roanoke today are 66 percent white and 28 percent Black, it was not always like that; segregation was a distinct way of life here. One of those demarcations of color was starkly evident at the First Street Bridge, which separated the Black and white neighborhoods, neither of whom were encouraged--and in some ways permitted--to cross over.

But in recent years, there have been many Roanokans, both white and Black, who desired to make amends for this former divisiveness and chose to come together to celebrate the diversity and inclusiveness that the city enjoys today by honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a renaming of the bridge and the addition of a statue of his likeness.

What you find today is the renovated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge and an extraordinary, life-sized bronze statue of King set atop an approximately six-foot tall pedestal with a bronze street scene representing King and the various people of this nation, for whom he represented justice and liberty for all. On several sides there are also benches with audio presentations of snippets of his various speeches. It is a very moving tribute that must be experienced.

Artist Jeff Artis, who played an integral role in the creation and development of the memorial and bridge renovation, also created a Black history tour designed to share the experiences of African-Americans in Roanoke through words and pictures.

Next week, Our last exploration of the Roanoke area takes us along the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway!

Resource List

  • History Museum of Western Virginia, 540-342-5770, www.vahistorymuseum.org
  • Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, www.hotelroanoke.com
  • Jeff Artis Black History Tour, www.jeffartis.com
  • Mill Mountain Zoo, 540-343-3241, www.mmzoo.org
  • O. Winston Link Museum, 540-982-5465, www.linkmuseum.org
  • Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-635-5535, 540-342-6025, www.visitvablueridge.com
  • Science Museum of Western Virginia, 540-342-5710, www.smwv.org
  • The Roanoker Restaurant, 540-344-7746, www.theroanokerrestaurant.com
  • The Roanoke Star and Overlook, www.roanokeva.gov/starcam
  • The Virginia Museum of Transportation, 540-342-5670, www.vmt.org