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From: Jim Dent jdent1 AT optonline DOT net
Date: Tue, 28 Mar 2006 21:20:23 -0500
Subject: Roanoke, VA
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Rising from the ashes
Thanks to good friends and government grant money, Roanoke's historic
Virginian Railway Station is poised for a new life.

By Kevin Kittredge | 981-3323
The station's ornate tile roof is full of holes.

Photo by Natalee Waters | The Roanoke Times

The station's ornate tile roof is full of holes.

The roof is the worst, with gaping holes through which come rain, snow,
ice and probably squirrels and birds.

The windows of the old Virginian Railway station are boarded up. Planks
droop from the eaves, held in place by a nail or two.

There is a "No trespassing" sign and notices proclaiming the building
unsafe. And the whole building is surrounded by a chain-link fence.

Five years after a fire broke out in one of the few remaining relics of
Roanoke's "other" railway, the circa-1909 station looks ready for the

In fact, it is poised for a second life.

Or maybe a third. The Virginian ceased passenger service in the middle
1950s and merged with rival Norfolk and Western Railway in 1959. For
decades, the passenger station, which had once served passengers going
to and from smaller towns in Virginia and West Virginia, survived as a
feed and seed store.

In 2003 it was given by Norfolk Southern to the Roanoke chapter of the
National Railway Historical Society, which is raising money to restore it.

The group is now awaiting the release of government grants it says will
pay for emergency repairs to the roof and halt the downward spiral of
the building since fire gutted it in January 2001.

"We've got close to $350,000 in grant money," said Alison Blanton, a
local preservationist who has been working with the group. The money is
from state and federal transportation funds and will be made available
in increments over the next three years. "We're just waiting to be told
the funds are available."

Ken Miller, president of the Roanoke chapter of the NRHS, said they
expect to receive $170,000 this year, which should at least pay for a
tar-paper roof.

Miller conceded they still have a long way to go to raise the estimated
$1.5 million total renovation cost.

But he also said, "We've got a good chance of making it happen. By the
end of the summer, we'll definitely see some progress."

Time to raise its profile

This weekend, rail buffs will gather at the O. Winston Link Museum,
which is in the former N&W passenger station, to pay tribute to the
other passenger station a mile away.

"Friends of the Virginian Railway at Milepost 2006" is sponsored by the
Roanoke chapter of the NRHS with help from the Link museum. The event,
billed as a fundraiser, will include a visit to the fire-damaged station
and a roundtable discussion with former Virginian employees.

Organizers hope it will help raise the profile of the station and the
Virginian Railway itself. "Everybody knows the N&W. Almost no one knows
the Virginian," said NRHS member Skip Salmon.

The Virginian was conceived by Henry Huttleston Rogers, an executive
with the Standard Oil Co. and a friend to Mark Twain. Twain even spoke
at the railroad's official opening, in Norfolk in 1909.

It was designed to move coal; the railroad's limited passenger service,
say rail historians, was strictly by the way. Rogers wanted a better
route from his West Virginia coal fields to the sea than was available
on existing rail lines, which tended to meander from town to town.

Rogers' railway was one of very few constructed in the 20th century,
when the bulk of the country's rail routes were already set, said Jeff
Sanders, a Norfolk Southern conductor and a rail historian. It lasted
half a century before merging with the N&W in 1959.

Most of its buildings and its rolling stock are long since gone. The
Virginia Museum of Transportation has the Virginian's only surviving
steam locomotive, an 8-wheel Class SA switch engine built by Baldwin
Locomotive Works in 1910.

Of the few remaining Virginian passenger stations, Roanoke's is the most
significant, historians say. Erected in 1909-10, here on competitor
N&W's home turf, the station is far more elaborate than the small frame
buildings that served as passenger stations elsewhere. It had an ornate
tile roof, a blond brick facade and terrazzo floors.

"The Virginian was probably trying to make a statement," said Miller.
"They built this nice, big depot just to show Roanoke there was somebody
other than the N&W."

It is a building of its time and place, which was the Jim Crow South.
The station had separate waiting rooms and restrooms for black customers
and white.

The old depot is really two buildings beneath a single roof -- a
passenger station and a mail and express building. The two are joined by
a walkway.

The NRHS hopes to rent the building to produce revenue for upkeep,
Miller said. Though there will likely be some historical displays, odds
are it won't become a museum.

"Nobody wants a museum out there that needs money to operate every
single year," Blanton said. "That's a pretty crowded field."

Said Miller: "We want to make this project self-sustaining."


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