Roanoke River in Wasena, Virginia
|States||Virginia, North Carolina|
|- left||Big Otter River, Falling River|
|- right||Dan River|
|Source||Confluence of North and South Forks|
|- location||Lafayette, Virginia|
|- elevation||1,194 ft (364 m)|
|- location||Plymouth, North Carolina|
|- elevation||0 ft (0 m)|
|Length||410 mi (660 km)|
|Basin||9,680 sq mi (25,071 km2)|
|Discharge||for Roanoke Rapids, 133.6 mi (215.0 km) from the mouth|
|- average||7,802 cu ft/s (221 m3/s)|
|- max||261,000 cu ft/s (7,391 m3/s)|
|- min||818 cu ft/s (23 m3/s)|
The Roanoke River is a river in southern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina in the United States, 410 mi (660 km) long. A major river of the southeastern United States, it drains a largely rural area of the coastal plain from the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains southeast across the Piedmont to Albemarle Sound. An important river throughout the history of the United States, it was the site of early settlement in the Virginia Colony and the Carolina Colony. Most of its upper course in Virginia between the City of Roanoke and Clarksville is known as the Staunton River. It is impounded along much of its middle course to form a chain of reservoirs.
The river has its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwestern Virginia at Lafayette in Montgomery County where the North Fork and South Fork of the river merge. The North Fork, approximately 30 mi (50 km) long, rises between two mountain ridges and flows initially southwest, then loops back to the northeast. The South Fork, approximately 20 mi (30 km) long, rises in several streams in the mountains on the border of Floyd, Roanoke, and Montgomery counties and flows generally north, joining the North Fork from the south.
The combined stream flows northeast between mountain ridges through the Roanoke Valley, approximately 10 mi (15 km) to Salem, then east through the city of Roanoke, emerging from a gorge in the Blue Ridge Mountains southeast of Roanoke and forming the boundary between Franklin and Bedford counties. The river flows generally east-southeast across the Piedmont of southern Virginia and enters northeastern North Carolina, passing north of Roanoke Rapids at the fall line. The river flows southeast in a zigzag course across the coastal plain through the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge and then briefly turns north as it enters Batchelor Bay on the western end Albemarle Sound.
The river is impounded twice in succession in the Piedmont of southwestern Virginia downstream from Roanoke to form the Smith Mountain Lake and Leesville Lake reservoirs. Farther downstream in southern Mecklenburg County along the North Carolina border, the river is impounded to form the expansive Kerr Lake. In northeastern North Carolina, 3 mi (5 km) west of Roanoke Rapids, the river is impounded to form the Lake Gaston reservoir, which stretches upstream into Virginia to the John H. Kerr Dam, and is impounded a final time to form Roanoke Rapids Lake.
The Roanoke River valley was the homeland of various Native Americans, mostly Virginia Siouan, such as the Occaneechi (today part of the Haliwa-Saponi) and the Tutelo. The name Roanoke is derived from rawrenok, an Algonquian word for wampum. The deadly spring floods earned it the name "River of Death". The river's lower course began to be settled by Virginians about the middle of the 17th century, in what was known as the Albemarle Settlements. The upper reaches of the Roanoke River were explored by fur trading parties sent by Abraham Wood in the late 17th century, but these were not settled by English until the early 18th century.
In 1883, the small town of Big Lick on the river was selected as a major shops and terminal point for the new Norfolk and Western Railway to meet the Shenandoah Valley Railroad. Big Lick was renamed Roanoke for the river that bisected it, as the surrounding Roanoke County had been in 1838.