Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South

By Stewart, Bruce E. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South


Stewart, Bruce E., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South * Rand Dotson * Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007 * xxii, 338 pp. * $42.00

In this fascinating and lucid book, Rand Dotson, senior acquisitions editor at Louisiana State University Press, describes Roanoke's transformation from a small town in 1882 to a large, industrial city by the turn of the twentieth century. Celebrated as the "Magic City of the New South," Roanoke, which is located in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, defied popular stereotypes of Appalachia as a land of backwardness and isolation. By 1890, the town had become the state's fifth largest municipality, serving as the headquarters for the Norfolk & Western and Shenandoah Valley railroads. But all was not well for this booming city and its denizens. As Dotson ably demonstrates, Roanoke confronted the same problems that Birmingham and other prominent New South metropolises faced during the late nineteenth century. Rapid economic development sparked class and racial tensions that threatened to destroy the elite's hegemony over the community and tarnish the city's progressive image. In the end, Roanoke, unable to adjust to the post-industrial world, failed to live up to boosters' expectations and the promise of a New South, one in which industry would solve the region's economic and social ills.

Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912 ultimately sheds new light on the nature of economic exploitation and social conflict in the mountain South following the Civil War. Since the 1970s, John Gaventa, Ronald Eller, and other scholars have argued that mountain residents became victims to outside forces beyond their control at the turn of the twentieth century. Northern capitalists, absentee owners, and land speculators monopolized power by manipulating local governments and overwhelming regional cultures with the legacies of industrialization. Moreover, these scholars have characterized social conflict in Appalachia as an insider-outsider phenomenon. According to them, struggles for economic and cultural dominance pitted mountain residents against northern capitalists and missionaries.

Dotson, however, persuasively argues that this "us and them" dichotomy overlooks internal strife. …

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