Boom 1880-1890


Once railroad officials made the decision to place the junction in Big Lick, the officials and the Philadelphia financiers proceeded with the organization of a company to plan for the needs of the people who would be moving to the little town to work for the lines. The Roanoke Land and Improvement Company held its first meeting on July 15, 1881 in Philadelphia. Interestingly enough, the financiers thought the name of the town should be improved along with its landscape. The residents of Big Lick voted on Kimball to honor the man who gave them their golden opportunity but he politely declined and suggested Roanoke instead. (White 65)

In addition to houses and a new hotel, the company intended to build and operate railroad shops for the construction and repair of engines and cars. The company already possessed a sizable amount of land at Big Lick: 500 acres which was "secured for the company many months since and before it was known Roanoke was to be the point of connection between the Shenandoah Valley and the Norfolk and Western Railroads, and in consequence the price to be paid is that at which the land is worth merely for agricultural purposes. The erection of the company shops and the various industrial establishments that it is expected will be built at this point will doubtless induce a large population and the land has already greatly enhanced in value" (White 65) The boom was about to begin.

In March 1882, the stock of the Roanoke Land Improvement Company doubled and in June, it increased to $500,000. The improvement company decided to build six houses for the officers of the railroad who located to Roanoke; these were cottages erected on Wells Avenue back of the new Hotel Roanoke. By mid 1882, three thousand new people lived in Roanoke, most of them laborers or builders. In September of 1882, a hundred additional houses were authorized specifically for the laborers and their families. The row of houses, mostly identical in structure were put up for the workers north of the railroad in what became northeast and northwest Roanoke. Workers at the Machine Works rented, and later bought, in that neighborhood from which they could walk to work. It grew rapidly, soon having its own school on Gilmer Avenue and its own firehouse (White 68)

In the days of the boom, downtown Roanoke was open farmland with nothing except fields and frog ponds. As the new Hotel Roanoke took shape, however, and the new railroad and the new station rose beside the tracks, building "mushroomed" along the south end of the tracks (White 69). False fronts "rose bravely, if shakily, and presented an appearance of prosperity to the passing train; the rear of the buildings hung over Salem Avenue which was recalled as nothing but 'blue mud'" (White 69). Men and women swarmed into the town from other parts of Virginia, from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New England to work in the machine shops, to set up commercial establishments necessary to "stoke the fires of progress," and to make a quick fortune in real estate (White 69). The explosive growth can be measured by comparing the figures of 1881 to 1882, as compiled by the land company. Dwellings went from "fifty-eight to 268, not including the 100 more authorized in September, 1882; hotels grew from three to nine, restaurants from one to five, saloons from two to twelve, and boarding houses from tree to twelve. Shoemakers had increased from one to four and blacksmiths from three to seven. Ten doctors were in town compared with four the year before, and there were six lawyers where in 1881 only two had practiced. New enterprises included two hardware stores, tow stationers' shops, two insurance agents and two real estate agents. The real estate agents were to multiply rapidly along with land companies as speculation in land and subdivisions became the road to riches" (White 69).

Roanoke was a "wide open, lusty town with a mixture of railroad builders, shop workmen, promoters, get rich quick adventurers, and the few businessmen and farmers from village days who were not a bit reluctant to get on the band wagon" (White 69). Indeed, the city had the appearance of a Western boom town. Observers compared the place to a "Colorado mining town" or as a "rough place" (White 69). Men "came into town, weren't known and didn't know a soul, so they didn't care much what they did. More than once some feverish soul would 'likker up,' climb aboard his horse and rollick down Salem Avenue on the sidewalk cutting loose with a pistol" (White 70). The exuberance of the new town also produced a nasty side effect: racial prejudice and violence. Edward Ayers notes that economic change did in face feed higher rates of black arrests and prison terms. On state after another passed laws..."pil[ing] on restrictions against vagrancy, contract evasion and labor agents. Black men moving from one place to another, with no white boss to speak up for them or pay their bail, found themselves at the mercy of local police and courts. Planters, railroads, or other employers facing labor shortages were all too happy to purchase, merely by paying a small fine and court costs, the labor of black men convicted of petty crimes. County officials were eager to arrest black men moving through a county, whether for vagrancy or some other trumped up charge, when they knew they could make money for the county and themselves by farming the prisoners out. The New South was a notoriously violent place" (Ayers 154-5)

Despite occasional turmoil and violence, the new town progressed rapidly. In 1883, the offices of railroad were in Roanoke and the Norfolk and Western moved its offices from Lynchburg and purchased the machine works. By 1884, the population of Roanoke rose to five thousand people: a size large enough to grant the town a city charter. On January 31, 1884 the Legislature of Virginia granted a charter to the City of Roanoke. The city seal "depicted the goddess of justice and...a railroad engine" (White 71). Symbolically, the seal represents the true nature of Roanoke's boom in size and economy. This was a boom that would continue -- doubling, tripling, the city's population. The boom lasted until 1890 when the bubble of growth finally burst.


Introduction/Nothing Inorganic/New South/Big Lick/Burst/New Progress/Conclusion/Works Cited