Skip to main content

From the NS Archives

Fall 2014


Music is woven into the history of Norfolk Southern.

One of the most notable examples dates to the early 1880s in Roanoke, Va., where employees built and repaired steam locomotives for Norfolk and Western Railroad. The Roanoke Machine Works Orchestra was founded by G.F. Fraser in 1883, two years after the locomotive shops were founded. Fraser, a native of England, played in the British army band and worked in Canada for the Grand Trunk Railroad before settling in Roanoke as chief clerk for the Machine Works.

The works’ first orchestra included two violins, a viola, flute, clarinet, cornet, trombone, and a bass violin. The orchestra flourished, playing events including state park dedications, July Fourth gatherings, festivals, political conventions, dances, and picnics. When the First World War ended in 1918, band members spontaneously left the shop, grabbed their instruments, and paraded down the streets of Roanoke in their work clothes to celebrate the armistice.

In the undated photo above, the orchestra is outfitted in performance regalia outside the Hotel Roanoke. 

In 1940, the Norfolk and Western Magazine reported that the band had played in “almost every city in Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, Western Virginia, and North Carolina – always eliciting praise for their musicianship and appearance.” All 28 musicians then in the band were Norfolk and Western employees, and most worked in the Roanoke shops.  The band boasted an elaborate tympani section as well as a pop gun, which was featured in one of its popular numbers – “Pop Goes the Weasel.” During that era, the band practiced Thursday nights in the Railway Express Building in Roanoke. Its repertoire included Sousa marches, Strauss waltzes, operatic selections, swing music, polkas, and the band’s theme song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

More than a half-century later, Norfolk Southern continues this musical tradition with The Lawmen band, full-time company musicians who are goodwill ambassadors for the railroad. The Lawmen’s mixed repertoire leans toward country, rock, and pop.

– Jennifer McDaid, NS historical archivist