An attractive and very rare 1891 bird’s-eye view of Roanoke Virginia with a strong promotional message, published in Milwaukee by the prolific Henry Wellge.
The city of Roanoke owes its existence to its advantageous location along the Roanoke River, in a long valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains connecting Maryland with eastern Tennessee. Even in colonial times it was an important trail hub, though it was only in 1852 that a town was established on the site, originally named Big Lick after a nearby salt outcrop. Big Lick got its big boost in the early 1880s, when it was selected as the junction of the Norfolk and Western Railway and the new Shenandoah Valley Railroad. The town was renamed Roanoke in 1882 and chartered as a city in 1884, and its population exploded from 669 in 1880 to more than 16,000 just a decade later.
The image depicts the town as seen from the southeast from an imaginary viewpoint over what is today Mill Mountain Park, with the Roanoke River dominating the near and middle ground and the Blue Ridge in the far distance. The visual compromise entailed by the bird’s-eye technique enables the artist to depict both the street layout and detailed perspective views of hundreds of residences, public buildings, rail facilities and factories. Among the latter the most notable are the vast Roanoke Machine Works, which at the time were dedicated to producing engines for the Norfolk and Western. Most of the ample open space around the city has been scooped up by at least 19 different land companies, and some of these parcels already have street plans laid out.
A small inset map indicates Roanoke’s location in south-central Virginia and emphasizes its advantageous position as a rail hub, and a dozen insets depict the offices of the Norfolk and Western, other businesses, public buildings, and a pair of fine residences. Finally, a helpful legend, numerically keyed to the view, identifies dozens of public buildings, hotels, railroads, factories, churches and no fewer than three newspapers, of which at least three were dailies (Whether intentionally or otherwise, the list omits the Roanoke Weekly Press, founded in 1891 and the city’s first black newspaper.)
No doubt by design, the view has a powerful promotional message, conveying the impression of a wealthy manufacturing town in a still-pleasing natural setting, with plenty of space for further growth. Indeed, I am aware of at least two variant printings, both bearing the “compliments” of local real estate companies below the title.
The view bears the imprint of the Milwaukee-based American Publishing Company, established in 1888 by the prolific viewmaker Henry Wellge (1850-1917). A native of Germany, Wellge probably arrived in Milwaukee in the mid-1870s, and between 1878 and 1910 was involved in the drafting and/or publication of no fewer than 152 bird’s-eye views, primarily in the Midwest and South. Reps has high praise for the quality of his work:
“Always well drawn and printed—sometimes brilliantly so—his views of Midwestern and southern cities in the decade of the 1880s provide particularly valuable records of urban conditions at a time when many other post-Civil War view-makers had stopped work or had reduced their output.” (Reps, p. 213)
This bird’s-eye view of Roanoke is rare, as all views of cities and towns south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I am aware of just seven institutional holdings and find record of but one other impression having appeared on the antiquarian market, offered by Bloomsbury in 2003, where it made a respectable £400.
Reps, Views and Viewmakers, #4139, recording impressions only at the Library of Congress and Roanoke Valley Historical Society. As of Jan. 2021 OCLC #5479384 records examples at the Library of Congress, Filson Historical Society, Penn State and University of Virginia (The University of Virginia example is a variant with “Compliments of Dupuy & Taliaferro, Real Estate and Insurance Agents, No. 11, Campbell Street” printed below the title.) Others are held by the Library of Virginia and Virginia Historical Society (the latter being another variant, with “Compliments of Simmons, Carpenter and Tinsley Real Estate” printed below the title.) Background on Wellge and his American Publishing Company from Reps pp. 213-215.