The growth of Roanoke, Virginia mirrored much of the changes that occurred across the whole South. It grew because it sought change through the technological force of the railroad -- a force that not only affected the industry of the town but also its population and self-image.
The small town of Big Lick looked quite different before the coming of the railroad. The town obtained its charter in 1874 through the efforts of several gentlemen, namely Henry S. Trout. These gentlemen were "staunch citizens, and in every way administered the affairs of this village with care and prudence, while time rolled on nearer to the day when the place would suddenly grow into a city" (Bruce 133) The town moved placidly through time and space the next six years. By 1880, there were 100 families in Big Lick, "almost equally divided between blacks and whites, and five churches, plus three hotels, five tobacco factories, and a cigar factory, a post office, bank and newspaper, two saloons and ten stores of one kind or another, along with a shoemaker, harness maker, undertaker, druggist, four doctors and two lawyers. Altogether it was a bustling little center. The 1880 census gives a population of 669, of whom 290 were Negroes" (White 59)
All of this changed in 1880 withFrederick Kimball's discovery of coal in southwest Virginia. He found that in 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, a colonial explorer found coal deposits in southwest Virginia. A geological survey of Virginia made by W.B. Rodgers from 1836 to 1842 established the fact that there was a coal bearing area in that section. In May 1881 with several well to do couples, Kimball journeyed to discover the coal. On May 12, he stuck his cane into an outcrop of bituminous coal (later found to be twelve feet thick) which he called the "Pocahontas Coal Seam." Kimball immediately realized the value this coal could bring to the Shenandoah and Norfolk and Western Railroads -- the two newly merged railway systems.. Exclusive access to the coal deposits would provide his railroads low cost fuel in a time when coal costs had risen to the outrageous price of three dollars per ton.. He set out to build a line of the Norfolk and Western approximately seventy miles from the nearest coal deposits that would act as a junction between the two railroads.. (Smith 24) This left Kimball, and the rest of the Norfolk and Western executives searching for a place to build their headquarters.
Somehow an enterprising Big Lick citizen heard of the railroad's plans. No records exist which explicitly state how Big Lick resident John Moomaw found out that the railroad was searching for a central location but it may be assumed that a newspaper account informed him. By 1877, Moomaw formed a successful canning industry that allowed him to build a lovely home he called "Cloverdale." (Barnes 86) He was a member of the old order of the Dunkards, an elder, or some kind of preacher in his church. A "hardworking, honest, far-sighted man, he realized that if the Shenandoah Valley Railroad could be induced to pass through or near his farm, the hundreds of cases of canned goods could be loaded with dispatch right near the cannery. Accordingly, he rode over the route surveyed by the road in early March" (Barnes 87)
He decided to persuade land owners that the coming of the railroad would be advantageous and promised to secure cash for the land taken by the road. Armed with the necessary papers, on April 21, 1881, he went to the Big Lick Council and had them call a meeting. The council sensed that Moomaw was on to something and passed word around for all residents of Big Lick to meet at the Neal House to consider a matter of "grave importance" (Barnes 87). No records exist describing the arguments advanced during the meeting at the Neal House. The residents of Big Lick, however, surely knew the promise of a railroad junction: "a station, a hotel, railroad shops, an office building, housing for officials, and workmen, and a glittering future" (White 61). Moomaw suggested that the citizens of Big Lick, "get up a petition, subscribe a sufficient amount to pay for rights of way and other damages and offer a terminal site" so that the road could be brought to Big Lick. (White 61) The enterprising citizens immediately got busy and scheduled a meeting for that very evening.
While the citizens of Big Lick organized their plans, Moomaw went to attend a meeting of the directors of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad, which was to be held in Lexington the next day. He stayed over in Buchanan with a fried and awaited the messenger who carried the petition. The petition, hastily drawn up, set forth an invitation to the Shenandoah Valley Railroad to survey and build its line into the town; and in consideration for which the town promised, "a terminal and a subscription to the amount of $10,000" (White 63) C.W. Thomas scheduled to meet Moomaw at one o'clock a.m. that evening. Moomaw presented the money and papers saying, "'Mr. Thomas, I believe these papers will bring the Shenandoah Valley Railroad to Big Lick" (White 63)
The Shenandoah Valley and Norfolk and Western Railroads came to Big Lick.