The city of Roanoke, Virginia, located in the southwest region of the state, is referred to as the ‘Star City of the South’. How does that city get that name? Well, it is the home of the largest mad-made star in the world. It sits on top of Mill Mountain and overlooks downtown and the Roanoke Valley. The great thing about Roanoke is that it is a big railroad city with the main line going through the heart of downtown. It was the hub for the Norfolk and Western Railroad and for the Virginian Railroad, and it was a hub for the Norfolk Southern Railroad. It was here at the shops where the Class J locomotives were built, and it is where the Class J Norfolk and Western Number 611 makes its home at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Being a mecca of railroading, Roanoke is the home of three surviving train depots. The original ‘Big Lick’ train depot is at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Just a few blocks from downtown is the old Virginian Railroad depot that is now used for renting out for events. Then you have the old Norfolk and Western Railway Station. It may not be as grand as the original Penn Station in New York City, but it has a little grandeur for a city like Roanoke, Virginia.
Yes, the old Norfolk and Western Railway Station was a fine station for a city like Roanoke that could have challenged many of the big city train stations. Unlike the original Penn Station in New York City, this station was preserved. Only the train platforms have been removed. Although the trains do not stop here, you can still see the trains go by.
So, what is the old Norfolk and Western Railway Station used for today? Well, it has three purposes.
First, it is the home of the Roanoke Valley Visitor Center. Yes, this is another train depot that has ended up as a visitor center, but this visitor center has a little of a grand entrance with the high ceilings and the marble walls and floors. It will feel like you are in a grand train station except that the only trains that are here a large-scale-models encased in glass. If your feet get tired, feel free to sit on the original passenger benches. You can also check out the gift shop while you are here.
What is the second purpose?
It is the home of the History Museum of Western Virginia displaying the way of life in the region. The displays include the history of Roanoke and a land grant deed signed by Thomas Jefferson, the drafter, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States of America.
What is the third purpose?
It is the home of the O. Winston Link Museum. Who is O. Winston Link? Ogle Winston Link is known as the last photographer of the steam locomotive. Although he was from New York and passed away there, he had a big heart for the city of Roanoke. Why? As mentioned, Roanoke is a big railroad city, and the Norfolk and Western Railway had their shops in Roanoke. Yes, other cities and towns had railroads shops, but the Norfolk and Western Railway was special to O. Winston Link. What was special about the Norfolk and Western Railway? It was the last railroad in the United States of America to pull their trains with steam locomotives. For many decades, most railroads were using diesel locomotives, but the Norfolk and Western Railway continued to use steam locomotives into the 1950’s. Many of his photograph’s are on display at the museum all in black and white. What was his favorite photograph? His was very fond on the Norfolk and Western Number 1218. In his last will and testament, he stated that Number 1218 was to be on display for all to see next to the Norfolk and Western Railway Station. Sadly, due to concerns of protecting the locomotive from danger and vandalism, it was not put on display at the station. Instead, it was put on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation where it stands today. Even though it was born from the shops of the Norfolk and Western Railway, it stands as a testament of O. Winston Link to this day.
The Norfolk and Western Railway Station is at 101 Shenandoah Avenue NE in Roanoke, Virginia. It is just minutes from Interstate 581 and U.S. Routes 11, 220 and 221. It is open from 10:00am to 5:00pm Tuesday to Saturday. (Closed on Sunday and Monday.) Limited parking is available at the train station. Otherwise, there is street parking. Admission is required. You can get more information at https://roanokehistory.org/. The Visitor Center is operated by the Roanoke Valley Office of Tourism. The History Museum of Western Virginia and the O. Winston Link Museum are operated by the Historical Society of Western Virginia. To see the Norfolk and Western 1218, you can go to the Virginia Museum of Transportation at http://www.vmt.org/.
The next time you are in southwestern Virginia, head to Roanoke. Head to the old Norfolk and Western Railway Station. Come be where the railroad is the ‘star’ attraction.