Skip to main content

The Gainsboro History Project

Norfolk & Western Railway & Boom-Town Roanoke

In 1882, to celebrate its anticipated growth as an important railroad center and make the community more appealing for business growth, the Town of Big Lick was renamed Roanoke, after the nearby river and the parent county. With the addition of the N&W General Offices, the Hotel Roanoke, and Roanoke Machine Shops, the N&W Railway quickly became a leading employer.

Roanoke Land & Improvement Company built the General Office Building for the new Norfolk & Western Railway at the corner of Jefferson and Shenandoah Avenues. Image is circa 1890. The Building was destroyed by fire in 1896. Courtesy of Roanoke Public Libraries.

By 1884 its population had reached 5,000, and Roanoke was incorporated as a city with boundaries that approximated two and a half square miles. With the growth in population and prosperity brought on by the railroad, the downtown commercial center expanded with boom-town growth. By 1890 the city’s population had grown to 16,000 (it was 1,000 when the N&W Railway established its headquarters in Roanoke in 1882). In addition, the city had constructed a market house, courthouse, jail, poor house, school, streets, and sewers.

By 1891, the City of Roanoke had grown substantially. This map shows how development looked on both sides of the railroad tracks. Hotel Roanoke and St. Andrews are visible north of the railroad tracks with the Gainsboro and Northeast Neighborhoods surrounding them on either side. Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

By the turn of the century, with plentiful job opportunities offered by the N&W Railway, Gainsboro and Northeast Roanoke continued to evolve as a center for African Americans.

See Also


American Publishing Company. (1891). Perspective Map of the city of Roanoke, Va. Milwaukee. Library of Congress.

Blanton, A. (2005). Gainsboro Historic District. National Register of Historic Places, Final Nomination. Virginia Department of Historic Resources. No. 128-5762.

Blanton, A. (2002). Roanoke Downtown District. National Register of Historic Places, Final Nomination. Virginia Department of Historic Resources. No. 128-5761

Dotson, R. (2007). Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South (1st ed.). University of Tennessee Press.

Jack, G. S., & Jacobs, E. B. (1912). History of Roanoke County. Stone Printing.

White, Clare.(1982). Roanoke 1740-1982. Roanoke Valley Historical Society. Hickory Printing.

Vosmick, Julie. (1995). Hotel Roanoke. National Register of Historic Places, Final Nomination.Virginia Department of Historic Resources. No. 128-0025.