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History of Transportation - Present

The earliest history of the Roanoke Region exists as archaeological evidence of Native American tribes which settled by the Roanoke River, which takes its name from the Native American Algonquian word for the shell "money" found in the waters.

In the mid 1770s, Scotch-Irish and German settlers reached the upper Roanoke Valley traveling on the Great Wilderness Road down the Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania. Settlers also followed the James River from eastern Virginia. As tradesmen and farmers moved into the region, new counties and communities were established.

Botetourt County was established in 1770 carved out from Augusta County. The county was named for the popular governor of the Virginia Colony, Lord Botetourt. The county's boundaries extended west all the way to the Mississippi River including most of Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The town of Fincastle in Botetourt served as the gateway to the American West and was the starting point for Lewis and Clark's famous exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. Botetourt's early role is preserved in the Fincastle Courthouse, designed by Thomas Jefferson.

Formed from parts of Bedford and Henry County and named for Benjamin Franklin, Franklin County was established in 1785. Franklin County produced one of the nation's most respected leaders, eminent black educator Booker T. Washington, who was born April 5, 1856, on the Burroughs Plantation, approximately sixteen miles northeast of Rocky Mount. His childhood was spent as a slave and he lived in a one-room cabin. After emancipation and a successful quest to educate himself, Washington established a new black school in 1881 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Now known as Tuskegee Institute, the college helped Washington achieve his goal of educating his people to provide opportunities. His birthplace is preserved today as the Booker T. Washington National Monument.

Alleghany was formed out of Botetourt in 1822 and named for the Alleghany Mountains. During the Civil War, the county provided much needed iron resources for the Confederate troops; Longdale Furnace provided the iron for the Merrimac.

Roanoke County was also formed from Botetourt in 1838, taking its name from the Roanoke River. The county eventually annexed additional territory in 1845 from Montgomery County, and historic Salem continues to serve as the county seat.

The town of Salem, established in 1802, served travelers on the Great Wilderness Road and was located on two stagecoach lines. It was the major center of activity in the Roanoke area until the mid 1880s. In 1847, the Virginia Institute, a boy's preparatory school, moved to Salem from Staunton and was renamed Roanoke College. Salem became an independent city in 1968.

Towns formed within what is now the City of Roanoke in the first decades of the 19th Century. Antwerp was subdivided in 1801, followed by Gainesborough in 1825 (the present Gainsboro neighborhood) and Old Lick in 1834. The Gainesborough settlement remained the most populous community until 1874 when the Town of Big Lick was chartered. The unique name was derived from salt marshes that attracted wildlife to the area. This tiny village of less than five hundred people was to become the Town of Roanoke in 1882 and in 1884, the city of Roanoke. The new town was located along the old Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad later to become the Norfolk and Western.

With the Great Wilderness Road and Botetourt County serving as the gateway to the American West, the Roanoke Region was always an intersection for travel and transportation. In the 1850s, the region became a major hub for the nation's developing railroad system. The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad (V&T) came to Big Lick, linking Lynchburg to Bristol and transforming the region. A system was developed to link three railroads across the southern tier of Virginia to form the Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad (AM&O). When the Shenandoah Valley Railroad linked Hagerstown, Maryland to the AM&O in Roanoke in 1882, it became the Norfolk & Western Railway. This marked the beginning of a period of rapid growth for the City of Roanoke which was call "the magic city" during this time. The Town of Vinton also was incorporated at this time.

To further enhance Roanoke's reputation as a rail hub, The Virginian Railway was built in the early 20th century along the Roanoke River and merged with Norfolk & Western in 1959.

In Alleghany County, the Virginia Central Railroad had extended its track from Staunton to the Jackson River in 1857. After the Civil War, the railroad expanded west to connect with the Covington and Ohio Railroad and in 1868 the two lines merged to form the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O). The railroad established a depot and named it Clifton Forge, the only town in the United States to bear its name. When the track to Richmond was completed in 1881, the town boomed as a railway hub and remains as the region's only stop on the Amtrak line.

Access to the coalfields of Southwest Virginia made N&W prosperous, transporting the world-famous Pocahontas bituminous coal which fueled half the world's navies. N&W became famous for manufacturing steam locomotives in the Roanoke Shops.

C&O Railway was eventually obtained by CSX Transportation, merging the railways of Clifton Forge with the larger system that exists today.

Interstate highways also have made a significant impact on the region. Interstate 81 runs from Canada to Tennessee paralleling the Alleghany Mountains in Virginia. Interstate 64 runs from Chesapeake, Virginia to St. Louis, Missouri. An excellent transportation infrastructure has been a hallmark of the Roanoke Region for more than 150 years.

The Roanoke Region today has a diverse economic base of service, retail, and manufacturing. It is the largest metropolitan area in Western Virginia and serves as a medical, cultural, retail, media, and commercial center for nearly a million people. The business sector has expanded beyond the railroad to include major clusters of life science; advanced manufacturing; transportation-related manufacturing; printing and packaging; and financial companies. Well-known names such as General Electric, ITT, Allstate Insurance, Advance Auto, Mead Westvaco, and others have major presences in the region.

In Franklin County, a 1960s era project to build a hydroelectric dam created the largest lake in Virginia, Smith Mountain Lake, which is an economic powerhouse for the region. The lake's 32 acres and 500 miles of shoreline are dotted with luxury homes and condominiums. It is popular for recreation and recognized for boating, skiing, and fishing. Bassmasters tournaments are televised nationally from the lake.

The region combines a host of well-known nature-based attractions such as the Appalachian Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Jackson and James Rivers with a growing and sophisticated business community to offer the best balance of outdoor and urban amenities of any region in the United States.

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