Passing Along the Lick: The Buried History of Downtown Roanoke

By Olchar E. Lindsann

A marsh steeped in standing water might seem an odd place to stay and build a city.

Yet until 130 years ago, a huge salt-laden marsh sprawled in the place of modern-day downtown Roanoke. It is a place more fit for passing-through than for settling-in, more fit for transit  than for stasis, for encounter than for property. For two centuries it has continually resisted human settlement, yielding only when it was covered over entirely, built over, and erased from the physical and communal memory of the city.

This almost permanent floodplain was fed by Trout Run, which bordered it on the south and now passes almost directly below Campbell Avenue downtown and fed the water-logged, salt-infused land upon which the city center has been built. The spring that feeds it wells up beneath the present-day Campbell Ave. & 2nd St., in the basement of the Patrick Henry Hotel. It reaches its official terminus a few yards after passing under Williamson Road, when its waters are merged and swallowed up by Lick Run, which is now also underneath the streets. Where it ends, so does the Long Lick. A few yards farther, Lick Run emerges back into sunlight, and passes along Campbell Ave., with the N&W Works built parallel with its course.[1]  Though it was flooded with standing water for most of the year, Henry S. Trout, who grew up beside the Long Lick prior to the founding of Roanoke, recalled that, “In hot dry weather, when the water would dry up in places in these marshes, the ground would become white with salt.”[2]

This history will follow what has come to pass within the salt and silt of the Long Lick, and along the stream which feeds it, passing through downtown. We shall see what materials—historical and physical—have been passed through the site of the city along the flow of these streams, and have surged temporarily to the surface again in our frequent floods.

On Settlements Past: Before 1825

Spring Water; Salt; Silt; Vegetation; Minnows; Carp; Eels; Snakes; Baptismal Water.

The Long Lick was a better place to pass through than to settle down within.

Along with the Big Lick about a mile to the east, it provided the natural resource that first drew to the valley a heightened presence of mammals, and particularly human hunters. It has always attracted very large numbers of deer, elk, buffalo and other game as they passed by, making the spot a favored hunting-ground for the region’s first inhabitants.[3] These people belonged to a mix of tribes, and though it is unclear whether there was a permanent settlement on or at the outskirts of the Lick itself, the availability of game and geographical conditions prompted a continuous exchange of people passing through, many of them along an important transportation route called, at least by the first European settlers, the Warriors’ Path, which ran about a mile to the north, and was used not only for war but for all kinds of travel and social exchange, making the Lick a place of frequent encounter, cooperation and trade.[4]

Most of those passing through seem to have been speakers of the Siouan language-group of confederated tribes, including the Totero, Monacan, and Mannahoac; members of the Iroquois, Cherokee, and Shawnee frequented the place as well.[5] This hunting ground was so important that despite little or no permanent habitation, hundreds of acres of arable land surrounding the marshes were kept cleared of forest and shrubbery. This seems to have been done by means of controlled burning, a substantial social effort maintained either by a village in the valley or a co-operative system among the communities who regularly utilized it, in order to provide for grazing and raise the population of game available to inhabitants of the entire region.[6]

When European colonists arrived around 1730, there were no signs of permanent settlement beyond the cleared grazing-lands, so they lost no time in claiming the marsh for themselves, calling it “the Long Lick”.[7]  Though the colonization of the valley was unaccompanied by any major burst of violence, a vital cultural meeting-point, major economic resource, and important transportation node had been ripped out of the network of native communities: now claimed as static property, the valley could no longer serve as a route of passage for native tribes without entailing violence from colonists. The Salt Licks’ important role the region had not been that of a place of concentration, but of constant passing-through.[8]

For awhile it remained so for most colonists too; though only a few families settled in the valley it  remained a node of transportation, and soon two major routes of migration intersected in the valley: the Carolina Trail (present day Williamson Road) passed the marsh’s eastern tip as it brought settlers passing south from Pennsylvania, while the Warriors’ Path was renamed the Great Wagon Road and gradually widened by a steady stream of settlers passing west from Richmond. The Long Lick was soon dotted with homesteads that drew their water from it, and “Big Lick” came into use as an informal name for the loose settlement strewn across the valley.[9]

Settlers and passers-through quickly squandered the key resource provided by the Salt Lick: game for hunting. Impossible to extract, this resource was only valuable to a fluid population of passers-by; as the permanent population rose, over-hunting became inevitable. A traveler in 1749 complained that, “this Lick has been one of the best places for Game in these parts and would have been [still] if the Hunters had not killed the Buffalos for diversion and the Elks and Deer for their skins.”[10] In fact, never again would salt contribute to the local economy; from the time that colonists settled here, as we shall see, the salt lick itself would become the most consistent enemy of human activity in the valley until it and the stream that fed it were literally buried.

From the start, the marsh intermittently rose up against this settlement, as in August, 1749 when the Roanoke River, its tributaries and the marsh itself flooded, not only demolishing many homes and destroying crops, but rendering some homesteads permanently untenable due to deposited silt and debris. At least four settlers were killed, as well as countless livestock, and the flood had a catastrophic effect on the valley’s agricultural economy that year.[11]

The spring that fed Trout Run had long been a frequent stop for passers-through, and in the last decade of the 18th Century the spring and much of the land along the stream passed into the hands of William Stover, a recent arrival to the valley. Stover was a minister, and had come to Roanoke with a community of Swiss and German Dunkards who had traveled from Pennsylvania along the Carolina Path. The Dunkards were both pious and unorthodox—Anabaptists, pacifists, and abolitionists—and seem to have found fewer friends than they had expected among the frontier slave-holding society among whom they had decided to settle.[12] Perhaps more comfortable with chance passers-by, Stover built the first of a series of hotels beside the source of Trout Run, portions of which still survive as part of the foundations of the present Ponce de Leon.[13] The location of this community’s church seems to have been lost; if it was on or near the ample property of their minister, he may well have used Trout Run to perform the baptismal ceremonies for which the Dunkards were named.

People Pass Away: 1800-1838

Spring Water; Salt; Silt; Vegetation; Minnows; Eels; Carp; Snakes; Salmonella Tyhphi (Typhoid Fever); Plasmodium (Malaria).

The salt marsh passed along disease to those who settled down there, and by 1800 was already acquiring a state-wide reputation as a breeding-ground for a legendary disease, a mélange of illnesses  known as “Big Lick Fever”. One such contagion swept the valley in 1822, and the newspaper in Lynchburg reported on, “various extraordinary reports which are in circulation respecting the health of the people at the Big Lick and in the neighborhood. It is currently said, and implicitly believed, that a most malignant fever prevails there, of which people die daily.”[14] The article went on to assure readers that travel and commerce at Big Lick should continue as usual, that no such fever existed, and that only a few cases of ordinary fever had occurred, with a mere two deaths.[15]

These deaths were probably the result of typhoid fever and malaria, both of which flourished in the Licks. Whatever the case, a legend seems to have persisted throughout the 19th Century of an epidemic that had wiped out the valley’s entire population at some unspecified date; by the 1880s, Big Lick Fever was a catchword known throughout the state, provoking a public refutation by one of the city’s first newspaper editors in the early 1880s.[16]

These stories of Big Lick Fever were passed from mouth to mouth by travelers, for the Big Lick was becoming an increasingly important transportation hub for the developing country as well as travelers’ lore. The 1822 article reports that rumors of the disease among travelers, “have strange effects. Few venture to pass by the place and they with fear and trembling, with penny royal [a folk remedy] at their noses. Some have had so reverent a care for their health, and to have been [sic] so thoroughly alarmed, as to have scruples about passing from Bedford to Fincastle.”[17] This anxiety was passed down from generation to generation of traveler, and even in 1884 passengers on trains were often observed to close their windows when passing through Roanoke.[18]

Travelers Pass By: 1820-1850

Spring Water; Salt; Silt; Vegetation; Minnows; Carp; Eels; Snakes; Salmonella Tyhphi; Plasmodium.

Long before the railroad or the city itself was founded, the settlement known informally as Big Lick was focused on transportation, passage; the image of it held throughout the region and the state was based on the experiences of passers-through, and the constant presence and passage of travelers and vehicles shaped the settlement’s economy and self-image. Prior to 1852, most travelers passed along the two highways in carts or stagecoaches, and the lore of Big Lick Fever was born in the two hotels that catered to them, then spread through other hotels throughout the region.[19]

At the source of Trout Run, the hotel built by the Dunkard minister William Stover had already been a stopping-point for generations, but in 1838 his descendents sold it to ‘Uncle Johnny’ Trout, for whom Trout Run itself is now named. The Stovers may well have left in part due to their opposition to slavery, a serious concern among the local Dunkard community. Six years earlier, the prominent Dunkard Jacob Harshberger cited this as the reason for his emigration from Big Lick, and the rest of his family had followed the year before Stover’s sale. The building was converted into the Trout House Hotel, and was a regular stop for travelers passing through Roanoke on the Great Wagon Road.[20]

Stage-coaches ran twice daily, and their trips were closely coordinated with the hotels. Trout’s grandson later recalled that:

“The stage drivers had large tin horns which they would blow when they got within about a mile of the tavern in our little village, and by a certain number of sounds or signals from the horn the tavern keeper would know how many passengers there were on the stage for breakfast, dinner or supper, as the case might be. Many of the people in Old Lick [Gainsboro] would gather to meet the stage, hear the news, and wait for and get whatever mail might be for them.”[21]

These gatherings of travelers and locals at the Trout House and Neal House were regularly enlivened with live music and dancing.[22] But despite his affectionate nickname and cheerful entertainment, John Trout was a savvy businessman, and the hotel was one aspect of a larger strategy of land speculation and local government.

Passing Along the Thoroughfare: 1834-1880

Water; Salt; Mud; Vegetation; Minnows; Carp; Eels; Snakes; Salmonella Tyhphi; Plasmodium; Refuse; Gravel; Coal.

His timing was not coincidental. 1838, the year that he bought his hotel and a large swath of the Salt Lick and land along Trout Run—including much of modern day Downtown—saw the creation of the county of Roanoke from what had been parts of Botetourt county. Trout was playing the long game; but in the meantime he possessed 220 acres of largely undeveloped marshland with a wide reputation (however accurate or inaccurate) as the most disease-ridden few acres in the state.[23]

The village grow slowly over the next several decades, as a string of homesteads and businesses were gradually built along the banks of Trout Run. In 1852, realizing that passing-through was the surest pretext for growth, Trout and other leading land owners arranged for the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad to build their new line along the edge of the Long Lick. As teams of  leased slaves labored to build the railroad, more workers,  travelers, and shops soon followed, and with the railroad running parallel to its north bank, the area around Trout Run and modern-day Franklin Ave. soon became the most populated part of the valley.[24] Norfolk Avenue was built on the edge of the marsh between the run and the tracks, becoming the main street of the village; the backs of these buildings opened onto Salem Ave., one block from Trout Run.[25]

This informal, semi-rural settlement grew slowly, and Uncle Johnny Trout sat on the property he had bought on the unhealthy Long Lick. He farmed the property adjacent to it, but a team of his oxen, overheated and possibly drawn to the salt lick as game had been a century earlier, wandered into it and were drowned.[26] During the Civil War, he attempted to bore a pit in the marsh to harvest salt, near present-day Jefferson and Salem, but was unsuccessful after boring 75 feet deep.[27] Finally in 1874—by now a state delegate—he managed the unusual feat of incorporating the scattered string of homes and shops along the edge of his land as a municipality of one square mile—exactly bordering the Long Lick—and the town of Big Lick was officially established. Suddenly, he held 260 acres of the most prime real estate in the new town; he was elected the first mayor. Things suddenly looked up for Uncle Johnny Trout.

Passing Under the Streets: 1880-1905

Water; Mud; Minnows; Snakes; Spiders; Salmonella Tyhphi; Plasmodium; Refuse; Excrement; Variola (Smallpox); Wood; Sand & Clay (Brick).

By now, Trout’s son Henry also held real-estate in the town, and had learned his father’s game well. In 1881, he approached the Norfolk & Western Railroad as a delegate of the allied developers and business-owners of Big Lick, and convinced them to lay their new line through the town—and directly along his own, otherwise useless property on the Salt Lick. When the president of N&W visited, Trout generously continued his role as liaison. It was decided during a tour of the property with Trout that the most sensible place to build the Hotel Roanoke would be on the far side of the Long Lick across the tracks. Local developers pointed out that this would draw business away from the town’s existing shops and businesses grouped around Franklin Avenue, and place the new town centre on Trout’s land instead. On their behalf, Trout returned to N&W to plead with them against his own financial interests, but to no avail; the hotel was built as planned, and he and his family were, he insisted, strong-armed into raising the value of their own property at the expense of other existing local businesses.[28]

By the end of the year, the town’s new main streets—Campbell and Salem—had been built on the marsh itself, and were being trampled by hundreds of new residents engaged in construction and transportation, turning them into mires of stagnant water and, “blue mud”. There was insufficient housing for the influx for unskilled and itinerant laborers, and many were forced to sleep either in overcrowded, unsanitary tenements or in the open, fetid streets built on the marsh.

In 1882 the city of Roanoke was founded, and was immediately assaulted by another epidemic of Big Lick Fever—typhoid and malaria—originating in the Long Lick.[29] One newspaper editor blamed the disease on the working class, who he insisted had caused the problem, “by sleeping out of doors to save money.”[30] On the other hand, the sanitary engineer who was brought in to diagnose the problem pointed to the total lack of sanitation infrastructure in this town built on a marsh.[31] The city had no sewer system; instead, residents set up open privies draining into Trout Run and Lick Run, which in turn fed the Long Lick with contaminated water that soaked back into the soil to be re-cycled again through the streams. Residents crossing Trout Run—which passed along Campbell Avenue—had to cover their mouths to avoid inhaling the cloud of insects that hovered around it.[32] Big Lick Fever continued to rage for another year, and in 1883 was joined by a smallpox epidemic, which necessitated mandatory vaccination for all of the town’s 500 inhabitants.[33]

At last, with the population rising exponentially every month, calls were made to place sanitation and infrastructure at the front of the town’s priorities. The massive task of filling in the Long Lick was begun, and Salem and Campbell Aves. required stone to be set six to eight feet deep in order to become permanently passable. Water mains were lain, with two sanitary drinking fountains and three other hydrants.[34] Finally, four years later, Trout Run itself was enclosed in a  tunnel running roughly underneath the north side of Campbell Avenue, and the city was built up atop and around it, leaving no trace of its existence from its now-underground source to its termination into Lick Run, also underground. The Long Lick itself was succumbing to the same oblivion.

One last assertion of their presence remained. The roof of the tunnel over Trout Run was made of wood, and within six years it was becoming evident that this had not been the best-suited material to restrain tons of water, mud and silt, in addition to the strain of the busiest street in the city. Engineers were surprised to find that the wood was rotting and risked collapsing Campbell Ave. The City Council swiftly engaged themselves in disputes with the trolley company over whose responsibility the repairs would be. Finally in 1904 the roof of the tunnel was completed in brick, though not without casualties. A workhorse on Campbell slipped and was swallowed up by creek. When hoisted up by a crane, it began spasming in pain every time its hooves touched the road, until it was finally realized that the steel cable was touching the trolley-line overhead, and delivering an electric shock. The line was turned off and the animal rescued. Within weeks, the repairs were completed, and sunlight would never visit Trout Run again.

Postscript: Passing Out of Mind (1905-Present)

Water; Spiders.

Trout Run continues to pass underneath the downtown, but there is no life in it. While it was once populated by fish and eels, an inspection carried out in April of 2014 found the only animal or vegetable life in the tunnel to be black widow spiders; many of the spiders found in the adjoining Lick Run tunnel are albino.[35] Since 1904 the history of the city has run parallel to the changeless darkness of the stream only yards below it, seldom touching or crossing paths again. This repressed landscape asserts itself, like the buried Lick itself, only when it is swelled with rain, floods, and temporarily turns the center of the city back into the stagnant mire it has sought to efface—drowning the streets built above it, rendering them for a few hours impossible to pass through.

Bibliography

Barnes, Raymond P. “ ‘Big Lick Fever’ Spawned by Salt Marshes, Caused Early Visitors to Hold Their Noses.” Roanoke World News (Roanoke, VA), Jan. 25, 1964.

— “Covering, Walling Creek Under Campbell Major Problem to Engineers 60 Years Ago.” Roanoke World News (Roanoke, VA), Aug. 27, 1966.

— “Early Roanoke Saw Primitive Efforts Toward Health.” Roanoke World News (Roanoke, VA), Feb. 1, 1964.

— A History of Roanoke. Radford, VA: Commonwealth Press, 1968.

— “John Trout Became Pioneer Hotelman After His 1838 Purchase of William Stover Home.” Roanoke World News (Roanoke, VA), Oct. 27, 1962.

— “New Antwerp Town Failed to Materialize.” Roanoke World News (Roanoke, VA), May 28, 1966.

Crouch, Harvey A. Norfolk Avenue Over Trout Run: Culvert Assessment Report. Brentwood, TN: Crouch Engineering, for the City of Roanoke, April 2014.

Jack, George S. History of Roanoke County. Roanoke: Stone, 1912.

Kagey, Deedie. When Past is Prologue: A History of Roanoke County. Roanoke: Roanoke Sesquicentennial Committee, 1988.

“The Monacan Indians of Virginia.” Monacan Indian Nation. Undated, accessed March 21, 22014. http://www.monacannation.com/history.shtml

“Regional History.” History Museum of Western Virginia. 2011, accessed March 21, 22014. http://www.monacannation.com/history.shtml

White, Clare. Roanoke 1740-1982. Roanoke, VA: Roanoke Valley Historical Society, 1982.

Wust, Klaus. “The Great Flood of 1749.” Journal of the Roanoke Historical Society 7, no. 1 (Summer 1970) : 1-4.

[1]    Clare White, Roanoke 1740-1982 (Roanoke, VA: Roanoke Valley Historical Society, 1982), 19, 71. The Long Lick is distinct from the salt lick farther to east, known as the Big Lick. “Long Lick” and “Big Lick” are often used ambiguously or interchangeably in the records, though sometimes distinguished from each other (cf. White, Roanoke, map facing p. 1). Here, I shall use the term ‘Long Lick’ to refer to the salt lick and marsh bordering Trout Run, and reserve ‘Big Lick’ for the settlement itself—also ambiguous, since the name was first used informally for present-day Gainsboro and later officially adopted for the precursor of downtown Roanoke. “Big Lick will refer to all of the settlement around the two salt licks in the valley until 1874 when the town along Trout Run was officially incorporated as Big Lick.

[2]    Ibid, 19.

[3]    Ibid, 3; and “ ‘Big Lick Fever’ Spawned by Salt Marshes, Caused Early Visitors to Hold Their Noses,” Roanoke World News (Roanoke, VA), Jan. 25, 1964

[4]    “Regional History,” History Museum of Western Virginia, 2011, accessed March 21, 22014, http://www.monacannation.com/history.shtml.

[5]    “The Monacan Indians of Virginia,” Monacan Indian Nation, Undated, accessed March 21, 22014, http://www.monacannation.com/history.shtml; and “Regional History,” History Museum of Western Virginia, accessed March 21, 22014, http://www.monacannation.com/history.shtml. See also White, Roanoke, 12.

[6]    White, Roanoke, 1, 3.

[7]    Ibid. 4; and History Museum, “Regional History.” The latter notes a long-standing error in the explorers’ names that is reflected in White.

[8]    Conflicts between passing Native Americans and stationary settlers continued sporadically until at least 1782. White, Roanoke, 22-23.

[9]    Raymond Barnes, “New Antwerp Town Failed to Materialize,” Roanoke World News (Roanoke, VA), May 28, 1966; and “Regional History,” History Museum of Western Virginia.

[10]  Letter by Dr. Thomas Walker, quoted in Ibid., 4.

[11]  Klaus Wust, “The Great Flood of 1749,” Journal of the Roanoke Historical Society 7, no. 1 (Summer 1970) : 1-4.

[12]  White, Roanoke, 27-28 and Raymond Barnes, “John Trout Became Pioneer Hotelman After His 1838 Purchase of William Stover Home,” Roanoke World News (Roanoke, VA), Oct. 27, 1962. A Dunkard community with Pennsylvania origins had existed on the nearby new River for several decades already, prior to the 1749 flood; see Wust, “Great Flood of 1749,” 1-3.

[13]  Ibid, 27; and Kagey, History of Roanoke County, 41.

[14]  Barnes, “Big Lick Fever”.

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  Ibid. and Raymond Barnes, “Early Roanoke Saw Primitive Efforts Toward Health,” Roanoke World News (Roanoke, VA), Feb. 1, 1964.

[17]  Quoted in Barnes, “Big Lick Fever”.

[18]  Ibid.

[19]  Barnes, History, 13.

[20]  Barnes, “John Trout”; and White, Roanoke, 28.

[21]  White, Roanoke, 47-49.

[22]  Kagey, History of Roanoke County, 148.

[23]  Barnes, “JohnTrout”.

[24]  White, Roanoke, 49. White and other sources describe the name Big Lick being shifted at this point from the the previous population center in Gainsboro to the Long Lick, and the former being re-named “the Old Lick.” Given that the name remained informal until 1874, the array of sources consulted for this essay seem to me to suggest rather that that “Big Lick” was used inconsistently prior to that date, usually to refer generally to the valley surrounding both Salt Licks, and that the association was naturally strongest with whatever area was most densely populated at any given time.

[25]  Ibid, 69.

[26]  Barnes, “John Trout”.

[27]  White, Roanoke, 19.

[28]  For Trout’s own disingenuous account of these negotiations with clearly conflicting interests, see White, Roanoke, 66.

[29]  Ibid., 69 and 71; and Barnes, “Big Lick Fever”.

[30]  Barnes, “Big Lick Fever.”

[31]  Barnes, History, 100.

[32]  Ibid; Barnes, “Big Lick Fever”; White, Roanoke, 71; and Raymond Barnes, “Covering, Walling Creek Under Campbell Major Problem to Engineers 60 Years Ago,”  Roanoke World News (Roanoke, VA), Aug. 27, 1966.

[33]  Barnes, “Big Lick Fever”; and Barnes, History of Roanoke, 98.

[34]  White, History of Roanoke, 69-71.

[35]  George S. Jack, History of Roanoke County, Roanoke: Stone, 1912; and Harvey A. Crouch, Norfolk Avenue Over Trout Run: Culvert Assessment Report. Brentwood, TN: Crouch Engineering, for the City of Roanoke, April 2014; and personal observation of carp, snakes, and albino spiders in Lick Run.

Olchar E. Lindsann  is a writer, theorist, publisher, performer, historian, and archivist of countercultural communities. He has published over 20 books of poetry, critical theory, and cultural history, and runs Monocle-Lash avant-garde small press. He is an adjunct faculty member at CHS, where he teaches Humanities, Creative Writing and Arts classes and administers the Library and Writing Lab.

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