The rest of the story...

Here's where I tell you all the stuff that wouldn't fit in a 2-minute TV story.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Of Giant Holes and Iron Mines

This is a picture of overturned ore cars on the narrow gauge railway that carried iron ore from the area around the back of Mill Mountain to the valley below. The photo belongs to Roanoker Ralph Campbell.

I’m not sure if this is a story about history or recreation.

Or wonder.

I know that my interest originated while hiking, running and dog walking on the Chestnut Ridge Loop trail near Mill Mountain. (The five-plus mile trail generally loops around the Roanoke Mountain Campground.)

I spend a fair amount of time up there but it took a while to realize that something wasn’t right. The land just didn’t lie naturally. There were humps where there was no reason for humps. Ravines you would expect to have been created by creeks did not have water in the bottom.

Something else must have created the topography.

During a dog walk one Sunday morning; friend Dennis Campbell told me iron mines were the cause. He spoke of a narrow gauge railroad that once hauled the ore to the valley floor where it was scrubbed before it could be smelted. His father, who grew up roughly behind the Outback Steakhouse, had told him about being warned “not to play over there,” as a child. He had related those stories to Dennis.

After twenty-three years in the Roanoke Valley, this was a history lesson I hadn’t heard. I had to find out for myself.

Not so fast.

I figured I’d call some local historians, dig up some pictures at the History Museum of Western Virginia, go hike my beloved trail and be on my way to the next story.


No one was able to find any pictures of the mining activity. Few had any knowledge of the mines at all. All traces of the narrow gauge railway were gone. Finally the great Roanoke historian George Kegley unearthed some valuable information, and shared what he had found on camera.

He told me that a man, who has largely been forgotten by Roanoke historians, though he is clearly one of the area’s founding fathers, owned the mines. Ferdinand Rorer is well covered in the TV report, though I did not have the space to include an interesting passage from the society page and read aloud to me by Kegley:

“...with his invited guests, ore cars of the narrow gauge railroad were mounted and with the whistle of the little saddle backed steam engine sounding at numerous street crossings the little engine went south and east crowing the river on the narrow gauge bridge up past colonial heights (colonial Avenue) on to the Rorer Mines. Upon return all were treated to an elegant supper at Rorer Park Hotel.“

To my surprise, Kegley was energized by the re-emergence of Rorer. He tells me he plans to do further research on him.

As to the question of whether it’s about history or recreation – decide for yourself. Go walk the trail, starting from the overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway spur about a quarter mile past the entrance to the Roanoke Mountain Campground. As you walk in a counter clockwise direction, it’s about 3 miles to the area where the ground starts to look a little unusual. Use the pictures with this blog so you can recognize the topography.

In the meantime, if anyone has old photos of the mining activity, the railroad or anything else associated with this story, please e-mail me at If there’s enough there, I’ll do a follow up.

See you on the trail.

1 comment:

  1. Roanoke Daily Times, Volume 5, Number 321, 26 November 1889

    There is a short article here (LVA - Virginia Chronicle) on the front page about the Rorer Mine