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Runs east and west along the railroad tracks through Roanoke from Williamson Road downtown to The Boulevard (24th Street) and Shaffers Crossing in Northwest.
You name it and you can probably find it on Salem Avenue, whether you want it or not. From the spaceship-like Taubman Museum, cute little shops, restaurants and Roanoke’s tallest building on the east to old warehouses and car dealerships turned into trendy lofts and condos, to popular gay bars, to seedy empty lots and car repair shops and a couple of homeless shelters in the middle to light manufacturing concerns to subsidized housing at the west end, you can find it on Salem Avenue.
As old as the city itself, Salem Avenue passes through or by five of Roanoke’s 11 listed historic districts, including Downtown, City Market, N&W Railway Company, Warehouse, and Salem Avenue/Roanoke Automotive Commercial historic districts.
Salem Avenue was never a glamorous boulevard; never had much cache like Jefferson Street or Campbell Avenue. It was built on a marsh—not unlike most of downtown, but marshier. It was opened as a link between the New Town of Roanoke and the Old Town of Big Lick, which was concentrated west of Jefferson in the vicinity of what is now Campbell Avenue and Second Street north to the railroad tracks. Once the boom started, things moved east toward Jefferson Street and Williamson Road. As Roanoke newspaperman and historian Raymond Barnes described it, “This thoroughfare, lying in marshy uneven ground, gave birth to flimsy, hastily constructed buildings and only here and there one found a brick affair built for permanence.”
No, Salem Avenue, was more of a working man’s street where working men crossed the railroad tracks to get a drink, have some fun, lay down some hard-earned N&W cash. That appeal to the working man’s dollar is what eventually led to Salem Avenue’s downfall. As Big Lick boomed into the city of Roanoke in the 1880s and ‘90s, as substantial buildings for commerce and finance rose on Jefferson and Campbell, Salem Avenue became the watering hole for those who labored to make it happen. By the turn of the century, Salem Avenue was the address for some 30 of Roanoke’s 40 saloons. And drinking wasn’t the only thing that took place along the muddy unpaved street. Some saloons had clandestine gambling dens in backrooms and brothels upstairs. The city did little to curtail these latter activities, feeling that the working stiffs needed a little fun.
The Roanoke newspaper reported that Salem Avenue at this time was also inhabited by a number of grifters and quack medicine salesmen operating in vacant lots: “Here has congregated a collection of traveling museums, fakers, merry-go-rounds and other schemes to beguile the pennies from the pockets of the man who does not know any better.”
If the newspaper and church-going Roanokers thought Salem Avenue had become a cesspool of crime and corruption, they could see that it was a literal cesspool of mud and filth and disease as well. Rand Dotson in his book “Roanoke, Virginia 1882-1912— Magic City of the New South” draws on newspaper accounts of the day to describe the nasty conditions on Salem Avenue and other streets surrounding the Roanoke’s City Market Building where vendors parked their wagons. “Wherever these wagons have stood there is left piles of garbage… festering in the sun, breeding disease.”
City fathers knew the conditions were bad and that unpaved streets such as Commerce (now Second), Railroad and Salem avenues were muddy miasmas after a rain, but the fast-growing city simply did not yet have funds for a permanent fix. So they got the chain gang out to fill mud holes with gravel.