Romance of the Rails

In Roanoke, a city that's proud of its railroad heritage, the age of steam still lives.


Cover Story

April 25, 2004|By Jerry V. Haines | Jerry V. Haines,Special to the Sun

From just about anywhere in Roanoke, Va., at night you can see the big neon star at the top of a hill on the southeast edge of town.

If some quiet morning you were to follow the signs up that hill to the little park at its top and pause at its overlook, you could sense Roanoke coming to life in the amber light of sunrise. You could see the Blue Ridge Mountains extending off into the mist. And you could hear, even way up here, the sounds of what made Roanoke a star: the railroad.

The locomotives you'd hear now are all diesel-powered, of course -- commendably efficient and very corporate. The long line of freight cars that each engine commands now ends with just a flashing red light hung on the last car. No need for cabooses. And no passenger trains stop in Roanoke anymore. Much of the romance of the rails is gone.

But Roanoke's new O. Winston Link Museum is a place where you can fall in love with trains again -- not merely a gallery of photographs, but a world of (barely) domesticated monsters from a time when Eisenhower-era values prevailed.

The museum is also a tribute to a master photographer who caught the last moments of that era and preserved its romance.

Link, a New Yorker and civil engineer who taught himself photography, was fascinated by locomotives. In the late 1950s, he conducted a five-year project of photographing the trains of the Norfolk & Western Railway as they passed through Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic, recording the final days of the great age of steam.

His photographs of these vanished giants would be reason enough to visit the museum, housed in what once was the city's Norfolk & Western passenger terminal. But he also captured the spirits of trainmen, looking sharp in their best overalls, bandannas and striped caps.

Link gave us images of life in the countryside and small towns where the shriek of steam whistles and the panting of laboring engines were part of the soundtrack of daily life.

Located among the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia, where the wedge-like tail of the state squeezes between North Carolina and West Virginia, Roanoke is a fitting site for this museum. It was the hub of the old N&W Railway, a point where three major rail lines cross. The company's headquarters were here; it built its locomotives in shops a few yards up the track.

The city's principal hotel, on the hill above the tracks, was built by the railroad. Before the mid-19th century, the town was called Big Lick, because of nearby salt licks. It already had been a transportation hub: Indian trails had crossed there, and settlers' wagon trails traced through the area on their way west.

With the arrival of the rails, city fathers apparently decided Big Lick needed a classier name, so they chose Roanoke, like the early island colony off North Carolina.

The N&W grew through mergers with other lines and ultimately was merged itself, into the company now called Norfolk Southern. Roanoke has grown to a population of about 95,000, and while many residents work in jobs having nothing to do with trains, the railroad still defines the city's personality.

The tracks still hum at the approach of a train, and people still stop what they're doing for a moment to watch it pass. It is hard to ignore a train -- or, for that matter, pictures of a train.

Even before I saw the photographs in the Link Museum, I heard the sounds: steam whistles of various pitches blending with the labored breathing of legendary locomotives. Oddly, as I walked down the hall toward the exhibits, I thought of humpback whales calling to each other underwater.

Maybe that image wasn't so odd, because steam locomotives were the leviathans of their world. Taming them to haul coal, logs, steers or grain seems every bit as mythological as subduing dragons.

Link captured this feeling on film. His photos, though still, communicate motion and power. In one, a dust devil of smoke hangs above an engine departing a station. A hiss of steam combines with the natural mist of a rainy day.

You can feel the strain of the piston's first thrust as it slowly overcomes the immense inertia of the engine and the dozens of cars behind it.

Link's locomotives show emotion, as well. A photo taken on the last day of the project shows a curtain of icicles reaching down a crumbling rock wall and a wheezy old engine struggling uphill in the gloom. It brings to mind the character Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman, demoralized and defeated. Four months after the photo was taken, the engine was scrapped.

A master at work

Link captured images of not only long-gone locomotives, but the people of the era: kids wave at the passing Birmingham Special; teen-agers cuddle in a convertible at a trackside drive-in movie; father and son look on as a locomotive bursts out of a tunnel in a fury of smoke and steam.

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