Roanoke VA – The town first called Big Lick was established in 1852 and chartered in 1874. It was named for a large outcropping of salt which drew the wildlife to the site near the Roanoke River. In 1882 it became the town of Roanoke, and in 1884 it was chartered as the independent city of Roanoke. The name Roanoke is said to have originated from an Algonquian word for shell “money”. This was also the name of the river that bisected it (probably where shells had come from) and the county. The city grew frequently through annexation through the middle of the twentieth century. The last annexation was in 1976. The state legislature has since prohibited cities from annexing land from adjacent counties. Roanoke’s location in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the middle of the Roanoke Valley between Maryland and Tennessee, made it the transportation hub of western Virginia and contributed to its rapid growth.

Roanoke VA Nicknames: Many businesses and organizations adopted “Star City” in their names, after the Mill Mountain Star. The older “Magic City” is still used, most prominently by Roanoke’s Ford dealership. The city’s original name of “Big Lick” is often used in whimsical contexts.

Roanoke’s status as the largest city in a mountainous area led to the nickname “Capital of the Blue Ridge”.

The first pioneers explored the Roanoke Valley region as early as the 17th century. An exploration party’s report in 1671 told of the “blue mountains and a snug flat valley beside the upper Roanoke River.” For the next seventy years, after this initial exploration, the region remained undisturbed by settlers.


As the land to the east of the mountains became developed, pioneers began moving into the western regions of Virginia. These early settlers from eastern Virginia were joined by people from Pennsylvania seeking new lands in the rich Shenandoah Valley. The newcomers began farming in the Roanoke Valley by 1740.

As tradesmen and farmers moved into the region, new counties and communities were established. Botetourt County, VA was created in 1769, with the town of Fincastle as its seat. For a short period, the vast county stretched westward to the Mississippi River. Roanoke County, VA was separated from Botetourt County, VA in 1838. Craig County was formed in 1851 from Botetourt County, VA, Roanoke County, VA, Giles and Monroe Counties, with New Castle as its seat.

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. 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.

The completion of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad from Hagerstown, MD, to its junction with the newly formed Norfolk & Western Railway in 1882, marked the start of Roanoke’s rapid growth. The adjacent town of Vinton, VA was also incorporated at this time.

The town of Salem, VA, established in 1806, became the county seat for Roanoke County, VA. Salem, VA was the largest town within the area during these formative years and was located on two stage lines. Salem, VA remained the major center of activity in the Roanoke area until the mid 1880’s and then became an independent city in 1968.

A geographic location west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and midway of the “great valley” between Maryland and Tennessee, has been the key to Roanoke’s growth. A transportation center, the community has flourished as the one of the major hubs of the Norfolk Southern Corporation. Air passenger and freight needs are handled at the Roanoke Regional Airport. A network of fine modern highways has attracted numerous interstate motor freight lines to establish terminals.

The Roanoke Valley is western Virginia’s center for industry, trade, health, education, travel, conventions and entertainment.


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