The Roanoker - November/December 2017 - 100
HISTORY | ROANOKE, 1917
train and sang in a booming tenor voice famed
opera selections. Only after he boarded the
train to continue his journey did a fellow soldier inform the canteen ladies that the tenor
had just completed a season as the lead tenor
at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
The women at the canteen would often escort ill soldiers to nearby hospitals or doctor
offices. This became especially critical during
the flu epidemic in 1918.
PREPARING FOR PROSPERITY
The opening of the Viscose Mill in Southeast
Roanoke was rather subdued. The Viscose
Corporation held no grand ribbon-cutting
ceremony, no media event, and no celebration to mark the beginning of its largest plant.
In fact, company executives refused interviews
and made it difficult to gain information.
Nonetheless, The Roanoke Times garnered
what information it could and announced
in its July 29, 1917, issue "Big Viscose Mill
Begins Operation." The front-page news was
somewhat dated as the mill had been operating
for several days.
Some 400 persons were initially employed
by Viscose in the summer of 1917, and that
would eventually grow to around 1,000 by
year's end. (At it height, Viscose employed
over 5,000 at its Roanoke plant.) To enter the
plant, one had to check-in with a guard at the
front gate located at the bridge that crossed
the tracks of the Virginian Railway. The guard
would then relay your message to a telephone
operator who, in turn, would contact the employee or department to be seen.
The concrete-and-steel plant was deemed
fire-proof by the standards of the day with
electric power supplied by the Roanoke Railway and Electric Company. Ventilation was
provided by large industrial fans that moved
outside air through a filter apparatus that the
company claimed provided purified air to its
Among the novel features of the plant were
a restaurant and first-aid hospital. In the restaurant, dinners were provided to the labor
force under the direction of a company dietician on an a la carte plan such that an entire
meal could be purchased for between 15 and
100 | NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2017
The first-aid hospital was overseen by a
company-trained nurse who kept health records on every employee. The Times stated:
This nurse, upon finding that a girl is not strong
enough for the kind of work that she is doing,
will find a place for her in another department
with work that is better suited to her physical
abilities. Besides this, she will prescribe a certain diet for the employee or, if she thinks the
trouble serious enough, will recommend that a
physician be consulted.
The secret nature of Viscose plant's opening was likely due to the well-guarded process used by the company for producing its
silk, which was made from wood pulp taken
from the Norway pine. The pine was ground
into a fine pulp and then reduced to a liq-
the local gas and telephone companies began
installing their infrastructure into the area
surrounding the mill in anticipation of residential development.
The importance of the Viscose plant to
Roanoke's history cannot be understated. By
the end of its first decade, Roanoke's Viscose
mill was the largest of its kind in the world.
It covered some 60 acres and contained its
own electrical power plant, women's dormitory, athletic fields, shower facilities and a
laundry. Forty percent of its workforce was
female (this at a time when the Norfolk &
Western Railway refused to employee females). Its total production by 1927 was
nearly 20 million pounds of rayon annually.
PREPARING FOR PUBLIC SAFETY
uid form from which was spun all the strands
of silk. Those strands, being extremely fragile,
were then woven into larger cords containing approximately twenty strands of silk each.
The cords were then shipped to other factories
where they were woven into fine silk.
The Viscose Roanoke plant's original employees were all from its sister plant in Marcus
Hook, Pennsylvania. Only after some months
did Viscose begin employing Roanokers who
had been trained by the Pennsylvanians. Once
a fully-trained force was in place, the workers
from Marcus Hook returned home.
For Roanoke, the arrival of Viscose marked
the beginning of the larger development of
Southeast Roanoke. The Roanoke Railway
and Electric Company extended a streetcar
line to Ninth Street to serve the plant, while
Another Roanoke happening in 1917 was the
needed modernization of the city's fire department. During the turn of the century, Roanoke had been plagued by devastating fires.
The Hotel Roanoke, Virginia College, the
Norfolk & Western Railway office building
and several other downtown structures had
become rubble due to fires. City leaders had
been sluggish to respond to the extent that
the Norfolk & Western took the lead in anteing up $15,000 for the modernization of the
municipal fire department. Other businesses
followed the railway's lead, and by the end of
1917 firemen were arriving at fire scenes in fire
trucks and not horse-drawn wagons.
By the close of 1917, Roanoke was experiencing change and unease. The war in Europe raged and thousands of the Magic City's
men were overseas or in training camps. But
the war forced change that might otherwise
have been delayed in arriving. Women were
brought into the workplace in great numbers, rose to positions of civic leadership, and
gained their voice in Roanoke's public arena.
The N&W Railway expanded its shops
while surrendering its operations (as did all
railroads) to federal control for purposes of
coordinating the transportation of war personnel and material. Roanokers began to
adjust to war rationing, coal shortages, and
"lightless nights" to save fuel. They bought
war bonds that exceeded goals.
In 1917, Roanoke grew up. It began to