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We think of real estate bubbles as recent, but Roanoke experienced one back in 1890.
Things were booming here in the 1880s. Roanoke was the fourth fastest-growing city in the United States. Workers from all over were coming to the city for jobs with the railroad or Roanoke Machine Works. Population nearly quadrupled from 1884 to 1890. Restaurants, offices, shops and boarding houses were opening.
As the demand for land increased so did land prices, and businesses sprang up to capitalize on the opportunities. Between 1888 and 1890, 132 land companies opened in Roanoke, and by 1890 real estate speculation was the city’s predominant business. Unfortunately, many of the land companies were unscrupulous, luring investors to put their money into overinflated properties.
The real estate boom continued in full swing with hundreds of property sales weekly until December 1890. On the afternoon of December 16, a heavy wet snow started to fall, and continued throughout the night. By morning, the snow was three feet deep – the city’s heaviest snow in 40 years.
Business, including real estate sales, came to a standstill. Railroads were blocked. Streetcars were abandoned. Roads were impassable. Farmers were unable to reach the city market.
Hundreds of buildings and roofs collapsed, starting fires and injuring people and animals. The blacksmith shop at the Roanoke Machine Works collapsed and caught fire. The Roanoke Gas & Water Company building collapsed, causing an estimated $10,000 in damages and a temporary loss of water for residents. South Jefferson Street was a solid line of workers cleaning away the ruins of store awnings, stables and sheds.
When the snow finally melted, many people seemed to realize that the days of inflated values had ended. In fact, some say the big snow of 1890 burst the real estate bubble. Real estate sales leveled off in 1891, and in 1892, started a free fall that lasted the rest of the decade.
Also in 1890:
• The grand opening of the Virginia Brewing Company took place August 14. Its pilsner won the gold medal at the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition.
• The Ponce de Leon Hotel in Roanoke opened on Thanksgiving Day. The six-story 120-room hotel was the tallest building in Roanoke at the time.
• Stewart H. Heironimus and Lynn K. Brugh opened their dry goods emporium, Heironimus and Brugh, on Commerce Street (now Second Street) on April 19.
• By a court-ordered sale, the Norfolk and Western Railroad purchased the Shenandoah Valley Railroad for $7.1 million.
Thanksgiving dinner, 1890
A Roanoke Times article published on December 20, 1890 warned that Christmas dinner prospects at the City Market were “not promising,” due to the inability of farmers’ wagons to reach the city. So how about dining at a local hotel? Christmas dinner at Hotel Roanoke featured green turtle a la Rothschild, supreme of Philadelphia capon with mushrooms, venison cutlets a la Marachle with French peas, canvas back duck and English pheasant a la Dauphin. Nothing catches your fancy? Then try Continental Hotel’s mock turtle a l’Anglaise, young goose, curried rabbit, spaghetti, escalloped oysters Virginia style and lobster mayonnaise. Or perhaps Ornsby’s Cafe: Lynnhaven Bay oysters, terrapin stew, fresh crab salad, roast wild goose, saddle of Southdown mutton and English plum pudding.