If the voters in Big Lick had had their way in June, 1881, they would have changed the name of their town to Kimball. The vote was overwhelming -- 57 to 17 -- to honor the popular president of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad. It was he, after all, who had pushed to link the Shenandoah Valley and the Norfolk and Western lines, a link which had been responsible for Big Lick's sudden importance in the valley.
But Kimball modestly declined. From his home in Philadelphia he wired an alternative name suggested originally by T.T. Fishburne: "On Roanoke River, in Roanoke County -- name it Roanoke." The affectionate citizens, obviously consented.
Known unofficially as the "Father of the City," Kimball did contribute significantly to Roanoke's flourishing as a metropolis. He foresaw the profit that coal would bring to the region, and he understood how lucrative the transportation of that coal could be. A vice president of the Norfolk and Western at the same time that he was president of the SVRR, he expanded the NW tracks in the coal belt and increased the railroad's volume of business. President of the NW from 1883 to 1895, and again from 1902 until his death in 1903, Kimball saw the NW roads grow from 503 miles to 1.722 miles. He double-tracked the line from Radford to Lynchburg in order to facilitate coal shipping and the also laid the foundation for the present NW shops by visualizing "shops for the construction of rolling stock" at the junction of the SVRR and the NW.
Born in Philadelphia on March 6, 1844, Kimball spent his entire adult life in railroading. At 18, he went to work for the Erie Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad as a rodman -- a menial worker. After a short time he went to England for two years, where he studies English railroading by working in the system. His return to the United States marked several job changes, all promotions, until, in 1878, he became the prime mover behind construction and growth of the SVRR.
E.B. Jacobs, who published a history of the NW in 1912, said of Kimball: "Mr. Kimball's memory is cherished...for the strong personal interest shown by him in every forward movement for the upbuilding of the city of Roanoke." After Kimball's death the NW erected a drinking fountain on the plaza in front of its passenger station, a fountain which, in the unintentionally comic words of historian Jacobs, was "placed there in honor of Mr. Kimball, and in recognition of his uniform kindness and care for dumb animals..."
Kimball was apparently a shrewd businessman as well as a compassionate citizen.
Source: Roanoke Times and World News: A Centenntial Edition