Shining atop Mill Mountain in Roanoke, Virginia is an enduring beacon for the Star City of the South and surrounding areas. The Roanoke Star, or the Mill Mountain Star, as it is affectionately known, overlooks the largest city in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains region and is a welcome sight to both residents and visitors. It is the world's largest man-made star and was erected in 1949, but was originally meant to be a temporary fixture during the holiday season. The Mill Mountain Star is a set of three stars, with a small star in the center, enveloped by a larger, mid-sized star, and surrounded by the largest outer star, each containing three to five sets of clear neon tubes. The Mill Mountain Star is quite big. It is 88.5 feet tall and weighs 10,000 pounds, which includes 2,000 feet of neon tubing between the three stars, which you can see within 60 miles from the air. It has a lofty perch, towering 1,045 above the City of Roanoke at an elevation of 1,847 feet above sea level. Built by Roy C. Kinsey of the Kinsey Sign Company for $28,000, Roy Kinsey's sons Bob and Warren designed and built the neon tubing that is still used for the Mill Mountain Star today.
The purpose for erecting the Mill Mountain Star was to serve as a seasonal, Christmas decoration to shine over the City of Roanoke during the Christmas season of 1949. The star project was sponsored by the Roanoke Merchants Association. John Payne, a Roanoke native and Hollywood leading man of the time, was on hand at the formal lighting ceremony on November 23, 1949. Less than 100 people braved the cold late November night to stand under the star when it was first switched on. Originally, the plan was to dismantle the star when the holiday season ended. However, by the end of the 1949 Christmas season, the Mill Mountain Star became so popular that the star was never taken down. The star was originally illuminated white, but there have been a few instances in the star's history where the colors of the star have been red, white, and blue, in tribute to the response to the terrorist attacks that happened on September 11, 2001.
Mill Mountain has had a long history of people trying to get up the mountain to see the incredible views from the overlook next to where the Mill Mountain Star is today. At the turn of the 20th century, a trip to the mountain's summit meant a bumpy ride in a horse and carriage or a daunting trip up stone steps on foot. Later, the Mill Mountain Incline Railway was in operation between 1910 and 1929. Remnants of those steps are still visible on the steep mountain slopes, as are portions of the incline railway. The old carriage road that went up the mountain was widened to accommodate automobiles during the early 1920s so people could enjoy the scenic views. Today, you can drive up to the Mill Mountain Star by way of the J.P. Fishburn Parkway from downtown Roanoke or take the Mill Mountain Parkway from Milepost 120 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Of course, you can still hike up the mountain, as there is a 3.3-mile trail that is part of the Roanoke Greenway system.
The future of the Mill Mountain Star can go in a few directions. As the star gets closer to its 75th anniversary, the City of Roanoke found serious deficiencies in the star's structure that could require millions to address. While it doesn't appear that the star will be removed completely, options for renovation or a replacement are on the table. Because of the star's iconic status in Roanoke, the city will be seeking input from residents to see if the star should be restored and keep the neon or pursue something different like LED, or completely rebuild the structure.
I visited the Mill Mountain Star in November 2022 and was able to enjoy the views from the adjacent overlook. It is certainly worth the detour if you are in Roanoke or even if you're just passing through.
|The Mill Mountain Star also serves as an overlook for the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains along with the Roanoke Valley below.|
|Waiting for the clouds to lift over the Roanoke Valley on this early November morning.|
|Even with the clouds, the views are incredible. You can see some mountains in the distance.|
|Historical plaque for the Mill Mountain Star (a/k/a Roanoke Star).|
|The Mill Mountain Star in its glory. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to see the star at night.|
|But I came back to see Roanoke under a veil of fog from the top of Mill Mountain. At least I could see the tops of some of the nearby mountains.|
|One way to get to Mill Mountain is by taking the Mill Mountain Parkway, which is a spur of the Blue Ridge Parkway.|
How to Get There:
Sources and Links:
WJDB7 - Roanoke considers restoration or replacement of Mill Mountain Star
Virtual Blue Ridge - Roanoke Mountain, Milepost 120.4
Virginia Outdoors Foundation - Mill Mountain, City of Roanoke
City of Roanoke - Roanoke Star
Go Hike Virginia - Roanoke Star: Hike the Star Trail to Spectacular Views Across Virginia’s Blue Ridge