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Streetcar transit in Roanoke ended on July 31, 1948, when service to South Roanoke and Raleigh Court was abandoned.
The 60-year run of the streetcar business in Roanoke – begun in 1888 with four mule-pulled cars and two miles of track to help people stay out of the mud – was marked by early innovation before peaking in the 1920s and then gradually falling victim to the forces of the automobile and bus.
The early improvements – steam replaced the mules in 1889 and electricity took over from steam within a few years – allowed new routes to be established and old ones to be extended. But by 1925, Henry Ford had sold more than 10 million Model Ts across the nation, and the Roanoke Safety Motor Transit Company was rolling out buses to compete with the streetcars.
The first streetcar lines disappeared in 1929, and by 1945 only the South Roanoke and Raleigh Court lines remained. When they shut down three years later, the system’s 18 remaining passenger cars were sold.
Not everything was in denouement during ‘48:
• The Vinton War Memorial was dedicated and opened to the public on August 20, 1948. The memorial was originally conceived as the centerpiece of an 11-acre memorial park that could be enjoyed by the living while honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country in World War II.
• Planned remodeling work for the N&W Passenger Station began in February, 1948 after being delayed since early 1941 due to World War II and the shortage of steel and other materials. The restyled building would open April 1, 1949, and the last passenger train would stop here in 1971. The building now houses the O. Winston Link Museum and the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau.
• After serving as Roanoke’s first city manager from 1918 to 1947, Williams Pearce Hunter came out of retirement to win the Roanoke mayor’s race in 1948. More than any other man, Hunter is credited with helping to “build the Magic City.” He was involved with the development of Carvins Cove, Victory Stadium and Woodrum Field, as well as the building of five major bridges, the City Home, Juvenile Home, and a sound water system. He died in 1956 and was honored a year later by the dedication of Hunter Viaduct.
• Dudley Townsend, joined Roanoke’s WDBJ Radio in 1948. A Norfolk native, Townsend moved to WDBJ TV in 1956, where he appeared for the next 25 years. He died in Richmond in December 2007 at age 90.
If You Build It, They Will Ride
To increase revenue and off-hour riders, just about every streetcar company of this era built an entertainment park at the end of one of its lines. The Roanoke Railway & Electric Company was no exception. Mountain Park opened to the public in South Roanoke in the summer of 1903.
The park contained picnic grounds, gardens, a dancing pavilion (converted to a skating rink in off-season), a bowling alley, and an 800-seat casino where shows, movies and cartoons were presented. A roller coaster ride known as “The Thriller” was added.
But in July 1920, Lakeside Amusement Park opened in Salem, with a 2-million gallon swimming pool complete with sandy beach. Soon a more exciting roller coaster ride also known as “The Thriller” was added. This and the increasing building boom in South Roanoke resulted in Mountain Park closing at the end of the 1922 season and the property being sold for residential development.