Roanoke’s bridges soar across railroad tracks, creeks and the Roanoke River, creating a network of concrete and steel sinew that connects people to neighborhoods, businesses and each other.
Some of the bridges are works of public art, especially the Memorial, Walnut Avenue and Jefferson Street bridges, which are bedecked with ornate architectural details and are among the few concrete arch bridges left in Virginia. In fact, a new development rising near the Roanoke River calls itself The Bridges because of its proximity to the historic Walnut Avenue and Jefferson Street bridges.
See More: Click for gallery
Roanoke has 74 highway bridges, according to the National Bridge Inventory database, and they are expensive to maintain. Over the next five years, bridge replacements and repairs are expected to exceed $33 million, the largest single expenditure in Roanoke’s Capital Improvement Plan. Already, an old steel truss bridge on Ninth Street is being replaced. The Franklin Road bridge will be replaced starting in 2016. The Wasena Bridge will eventually meet the same fate. Fortunately, the arch bridges are local landmarks that will be spared the wrecking ball.
Roanoke Times photographers Stephanie Klein-Davis and Erica Yoon have spent the past few weeks shooting images of Roanoke’s historic bridges. You can see their work on pages 6-8 and learn more about the bridges that have spanned generations and are still bringing people together today.
Connects Memorial Avenue and 13th Street Southwest, across the Roanoke River.
Year opened: 1926
Style: Concrete arch with Art Deco designs
Length: 785 feet
Builder: W.W. Boxley and Company
History: Roanoke’s most beautiful and ornate bridge also has one of the most interesting and controversial histories. The five-span structure that replaced the adjacent Woodrum Bridge was dedicated on Aug. 30, 1926, as a memorial to Roanoke soldiers who died in World War I. However, local veterans boycotted the ceremony because they believed that the bridge was not a suitable tribute to their fallen comrades – it was merely a new bridge, one of three approved by a bond referendum, that city fathers conveniently called a memorial. Despite four bronze plaques that bear the names of Roanoke’s early 20th-century war dead and quotations from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, the veterans stayed away. Some 88 years later, the bridge is sort of a decorated veteran itself, a grand old span that once ferried streetcars and Model-Ts and now supports 11,000 cars daily plus scores of cyclists, runners and walkers who use it as a crossing on the Roanoke River Greenway.
Walnut Avenue Bridge
Walnut Avenue Southeast, Virginia 116, across Norfolk Southern tracks, Williamson Road and the Roanoke River
Year opened: 1927
Style: Concrete arch with Art Deco designs and Egyptian Babylonian parapets (railings)
Length: 887 feet
Builder: R.C. Churchill Company
History: South Roanoke blossomed during Roanoke’s “Magic City” boomtown years. The Virginian Railway built a station near the Roanoke River, where lumber mills sprang up to supply wood for the railroad’s insatiable appetite for rail ties and buildings. The Roanoke Railway & Electric Company tied the growing city together with streetcar lines and built barns for its cars on Walnut Avenue. The bridge was designed to cross high above the railroad tracks and make it easier for streetcars and newfangled automobiles from the burgeoning neighborhoods at the base of Mill Mountain to get downtown. Several landowners, led by the Adams, Payne & Gleaves Lumber Company, protested that the city and railroad were going to condemn their property to build the bridge, but fears were allayed and the bridge was built. The lumber mill, however, succumbed a decade later after the last of its owners died and the Great Depression brought construction projects to a standstill. The portion of the bridge that crosses the river is actually a separate structure originally built in 1890 and replaced in 1995.
Jefferson Street Bridge
Jefferson Street Southeast, across the Norfolk Southern tracks
Year opened: 1928
Style: Concrete arch with Art Deco designs and Egyptian Babylonian parapets
Length: 380 feet
Builder: R.C. Churchill Company
History: The Jefferson Street Bridge was the last of Roanoke’s three concrete-arch spans built in a three-year period, all of which still stand today. This one was a companion to the Walnut Avenue Bridge and is similar in design and appearance. The bridge was built to raise streetcar traffic above the railroad crossings and funnel people and goods to downtown, while providing a splendid entrance into Roanoke. For decades, a companion steel-truss bridge crossed the Roanoke River to the south on Jefferson Street; it was replaced in the 1970s by the sweeping bridge that now stretches in front of Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital.
Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge
Connects First and Henry streets downtown.
Year opened: 1892
Style: Steel pony truss
Length: 316 feet
Builder: Norfolk and Western Railway
History: The former First Street Bridge (which was also called the Henry Street Bridge) underwent a $4 million renovation in 2007 and reopened as a pedestrian bridge renamed in honor of the slain civil rights leader. The narrow bridge once provided a vehicle crossing over the railroad tracks between downtown and the Gainsboro neighborhood, where Henry Street was the retail and entertainment hub for many black Roanokers before “urban renewal” projects wiped out much of the neighborhood. The bridge was repaired numerous times over the decades and was closed to traffic in 2000. Since reopening in February 2008, the bridge has been a primary walkway for people who live in apartments in the renovated Norfolk and Western headquarters, who attend classes at the Roanoke Higher Education Center or who just want to admire the bronze statue of King at the north end of the bridge and listen to recordings of his speeches. It is the last steel truss bridge in Roanoke.
Franklin Road Bridge
Franklin Road Southwest, U.S. 220, across Norfolk Southern tracks
Year opened: 1936
Style: Art Deco
Length: 363 feet
Builder: T.A. Loving and Company
History: During the Great Depression, the Virginian Railway and the City of Roanoke received federal funds to build bridges that would cross above railroad tracks and remove dangerous at-grade crossings. The Franklin Road and Wasena bridges were two projects paid for by the New Deal-era Public Works Administration, which put unemployed local laborers to work. The bridge’s Art Deco flourishes are not as elaborate as those of the bridges built in the 1920s, although the original lights used sodium vapor to illuminate the bridge at night, which was new to Roanoke in the 1930s. The aging bridge is slated to be replaced in 2016.
Main Street Southwest, U.S. 221, across Norfolk Southern tracks and the Roanoke River
Year opened: 1938
Style: Concrete and steel, no discernable architectural style
Length: 900 feet
Builder: Wisconsin Bridge and Iron Company
History: The Wasena Bridge, also known as the Main Street Bridge, is the longest in Roanoke. It replaced an old steel bridge that had been built across the Roanoke River by the Wasena Land Company in 1912. The original bridge connected the city to its growing suburb, which boasted Roanoke’s first bus route. The Wasena Bridge will undergo a major study beginning next year and will most likely be replaced by a new bridge in a few years.
10th Street Bridge
10th Street Northwest, across Lick Run
Year opened: 1929
Length: 19 feet
Builder: Unknown, probably the Virginia Department of Highways (now called the Virginia Department of Transportation)
History: Drivers who cross this short slab of a bridge near Brown-Robertson Park along the Lick Run Greenway probably don’t know that they are crossing one of the oldest bridges in the city. The concrete railings on each side are stamped with 1929 on their outer walls.
Sources: Luke Pugh, Roanoke civil engineer; Michael J. Pulice, Architectural Historian at the Western Regional Office of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources; Katie Coffield, Historic Preservation Planner, Hill Studio; The Roanoke Times archives.