Colonial transportation hub is chock-full of haunted places and urban legends.
Bordered by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, Roanoke, Virginia offers picturesque views of both ranges from nearly every street. Locals and visitors can enjoy an abundance of fun activities, which range from outdoor adventures to brewery tours. Yet don’t let this independent city’s natural surroundings and cultural excursions fool you. Roanoke has a wealth of haunted locations, as well as a few creepy urban legends that will make your spine really tingle!
English settlers began exploring the Roanoke Valley as early as the seventeenth century. They were drawn to the region by its very rich and fertile lands. The twenty mile long valley falls within a great basin and is surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachia. Prior to the pioneers, the area was home to various Native American tribes. These Indians lived an agricultural-based lifestyle, cultivating the earth and fishing from the Roanoke River. The word “Roanoke” is believed to be derived from their currency of smoothed shells, called “rawrenoc.”
By 1740, the Europeans had established their own farms in the Roanoke Valley. Tradesmen began flooding in, and the region’s population grew substantially. About three decades later, the vast county of Botetourt was created. It was named after Norbone Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt. Berkeley served as the royal governor of Virginia from 1768 to 1770. He died on October 15, 1770 in Williamsburg, and there is a statue which commemorates him in the Capitol building.
The arrival of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in 1852 transformed the valley from a rural and agrarian society to a suburban and commercial one. The city of Roanoke, Virginia was established that same year. It was originally called “Big Lick,” after a large outcropping of salt near the Roanoke River. During the colonial era, Roanoke was a primary stop along the Great Wagon Road. The Great Wagon Road would eventually stretch from Pennsylvania to Georgia. It “provided a route for inland trade and settlers heading west.”1 During the Revolutionary War, the road played a pivotal role in supplying American forces in the western areas of the English colonies. Circa 1754, the road’s route spanned approximately three hundred and ninety-five miles, starting at Philadelphia and ending at the intersection of Williamson Road and Franklin Road in Roanoke. Some one hundred and forty-five miles were then added, bringing its final stop to Shallow Ford in North Carolina.
Roanoke’s rich and long history has helped it become one of the most haunted cities in southwestern Virginia. Below we recount the chilling story of “The Woman in Black,” and explore two spooky sites: The Patrick Henry Hotel and the majestic Grandin Theater.
The Woman in Black
According to a March 1902 article in The Roanoke Times, the men of the city were being terrorized by a “Woman in Black.” “Her name was on every lip; strong men trembled when her name was spoken; children cried and clung to their mothers’ dresses; terror reigned supreme!”2 No one knew her name, or why she was in Roanoke. Though she never physically hurt anyone, the way the woman would unexpectedly appear then suddenly vanish was enough to strike fear in even the boldest of hearts.
The woman was described to be quite strikingly beautiful, with “dancing eyes”3 and a black turban that hid most of her face. When she spoke, cold chills would run down men’s spines. One prominent Roanoke merchant, upon leaving his store after midnight, ran into her. She materialized out of nowhere and tried to flirt with him. “You are not the first married man that I have seen to his home this night,”4 she whispered as she followed him to his front door. Terrified and speechless, the merchant dashed inside.
Within a few days, though, reports of the woman’s appearances ceased. Some believed that she’d moved on to haunt the town of Bluefield, as the locals there began to encounter a woman who exactly matched her description. Yet that same month, a story titled “Two Prominent Men see Ghost!” ran in an Alma, Nebraska newspaper. This “ghost” was said to be that of a young woman, dressed also “in deep black”5 and prone to materializing out of the shadows. If not a spirit, how could the same woman be in multiple places at once?
The “Woman in Black” has thus become an acclaimed urban legend in Virginia. Some theorize that she is the ghost of a scorned woman, returning from the hereafter in an effort to sway husbands from their wives.
The Patrick Henry Hotel
The Patrick Henry Hotel is located in the city’s downtown historic district. It was built in 1925 and is both a national historic place and a Virginia landmark. During its days as a hotel, The Patrick Henry catered to traveling salesmen. It had an ornate lobby, a spacious ballroom and three hundred guest rooms. It was chartered by William Wise Boxley and designed by William Lee Stoddart. Boxely was a local business leader, and Stoddart an acclaimed architect from Tenafly, New Jersey. Besides The Patrick Henry Hotel, Stoddart was the mastermind behind hospitality structures including The Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia and The Genetti Hotel in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
In 2009, The Patrick Henry Hotel was transformed into an apartment complex. Some of its original interior decorations were kept intact – such as antique chandeliers and an old faux skylight in the atrium. What else has not changed “is the alleged fact that the old Patrick Henry is haunted.”6 Reports of lights turning on and off by themselves, guests encountering unexplainable cold spots and bodiless footsteps being heard in the hallways continue to this very day.
When a team of ghost hunters visited the hotel, they thus had their fare share of paranormal delights. They recorded several electronic voice phenomena, said to be the conversations of deceased tenants. The group also claimed to have witnessed three ghosts dressed in tuxedos in the hotel’s ballroom. People have also seen the apparition of a man smoking a pipe on the second floor.
Room 606 has been reported to be the most supernaturally active place in The Patrick Henry Hotel. According to local lore, this was where a young airline stewardess was brutally stabbed to death. Her vicious murderer then stashed her bloody body in the bathtub and was never nabbed. When a female guest stayed in the room a few years later, she claimed that the ceiling above her bed opened up and the ghost of said stewardess descended to touch her hair. When parapsychology teacher Deborah Carvelli took her students to that same room, they too witnessed the same spooky phenomenon. “A few students [even] said that they envisioned the bathtub being full of ‘blood and water.’”7
Another ghost that haunts The Patrick Henry Hotel is that of a lady named Lucy, who is said to have died in her room but still likes to wander around the establishment in the wee hours of the evening. Night attendants and nocturnal guests have also come across the spirit of a man dressed in 1920s clothing.
The Grandin Theater
The old Grandin Theater is an acclaimed city landmark – “one of the jewels in the arts and cultural crown of the Roanoke Valley.”8 The theater first opened in 1932, as one of the first theaters in the city with sound. It was constructed by architect John Zink, and the first movie screened there was Arrowsmith. This melodramatic film starred Ronold Colman and Helen Hayes – Academy Award- and Tony Award-winning actors. For several decades, The Grandin Theater ran talking pictures, including classics like The Sound of Music and Annie Get Your Gun. Legendary blues musicians, such as John Lee Hooker and BB King, also held lively concerts there. When Julie Hunsaker became the Grandin Theater’s new manager in 1986, she added comedy shows to the theater’s growing list of attractions.
The Grandin Theater struggled financially during the late 1900s and was forced to close in November 2001. On October 20, 2002, though, it was able to raise enough funds to reopen. The French film, Mostly Martha, was screened to celebrate its grand return.
Today, The Grandin Theater offers movie fans a mix of Hollywood titles and indie films. However, be careful if you opt to watch a flick at the Grandin Theater. According to the theater’s assistant manager, “a homeless family once lived in the projection booth for some time when the theater closed at one point in the ‘50s.”9 Employees claim to hear the ghostly cries of one of the clan’s deceased babies, when the building is empty of customers. “There have been reports of a face looking down from the projection booth, a boy walking through the closed doors of the screening room, and the sounds of clinking glasses and laughter from the upstairs when employees are alone in the theater at night”10 as well.
If you are a Roanoke local with another urban myth to share, feel free to reach out to us! Contact us as well if you visited the city recently and have a frightening experience to tell.
1. “The Great Wagon Road.” GeorgianIndex.net. Last updated by webmaster 2007. Web. 7 August 2016. Para. 1.
2. Taylor, L.B. The Great Book of Virginia Ghost Stories. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2010. Page 267.
3. Bahr, Jeff, Troy Taylor, Loren Coleman, Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman. Weird Virginia. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2007. Page 23.
4. Taylor, L.B. The Great Book of Virginia Ghost Stories. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2010. Page 268.
5. Bahr, Jeff, Troy Taylor, Loren Coleman, Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman. Weird Virginia. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2007. Page 23.
6. Taylor Jr., L.B. Haunted Roanoke (Haunted America.) Charleston: Haunted America, A Division of The History Press, 2013. Page 14.
7. Taylor Jr., L.B. Haunted Roanoke (Haunted America.) Charleston: Haunted America, A Division of The History Press, 2013. Page 15.
8. “About.” GrandinTheater.com, n.d. Web. 7 August 2016. Para. 4.
9. Lau, Katelyn. “Ghostly stories, haunted sites and sinister sisters who scare.” CollegiateTimes.com. 30 October 2007. Web. Para. 10.
10. Contributor. “Haunted Places in the Roanoke, Virginia Area.” SuperForty.com. 15 September 2009. Web. 7 August 2016. Para. 13.