Linked up: Museum adds sparkle to Star City

The Star City is about to get a jewel.

On January 10, Roanoke officials will join railroad buffs in cutting the opening ribbon for a new museum showcasing the stunning photographic achievements of the late O. Winston Link.

Link, who died three years ago, is the cross-over star of railroad photography. He didn't just capture trains; he populated his pictures with rural culture– and people. A lifetime New Yorker, Link spent much of his spare time from 1955 to 1960 rolling through the small towns and hollows of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina in his 1952 Buick convertible to document the final days of America's last all-steam railroad.

"While innocently pursuing his passion for steam locomotives, Winston captured in his art an extraordinary slice of American life," says Robert Mann, a New York gallery owner who has treated Link's work as fine art for over 25 years.

Unlike the typical content of railroad fan magazines day-lit pictures of gleaming trains coming around a bend, or sterile "hardware" photos– most of Link's hundreds of meticulously composed and fabulously detailed images were shot at night.

Link reportedly told interviewers that he couldn't control the lay of the tracks or the angle of the sun. In response, as has now become legendary, Link might use nearly a mile of electric cables and up to 50,000 watts of flashbulbs to capture a single nighttime shot.

Some of these images– such as "Hotshot Eastbound at the Drive-in Movie, Iaeger, West Virginia" and "Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, Virginia"– have become classics in American juxtaposition.

"Everyone can find something to get excited about in Winston Link photographs," says Suzanne Foley, who recently curated a Link exhibition at the University of Virginia Art Museum.

Link's own life was also a study in contrasts. He studied– but never practiced– civil engineering. He designed his own elaborate lighting systems and mustered the audacity to approach a railroad president to pursue his obsession. But in his later years, he cowered before a wife who stole his photographs and his money [see sidebar].

Link began his professional life in the 1930s in commercial photography, and quickly earned praise for capturing details of machinery, including shots of early hulking computers.

Tom Garver was Link's assistant on three of the trips in 1957 and 1958 and later became Link's agent.

Garver relates that commercial work could be mundane. "They'd say, 'Okay, Winston, get this shot– we want you to get this piece of machinery. Our board of directors likes your ability and speed.'"

But speed was not Link's obsession. Steam trains were.

Unlike a signed Link train print that can now command as much as $14,000, more mundane subjects by Link– including shots of washtubs for the Wheeling Galvanizing Companycan be had for under $10 on eBay, says Garver.

"They're not signed," Garver notes. "They're not works of art." Link would probably agree.

"He'd go back to New York to work for clients," says Garver, "so he could do this."

This was made possible through the indulgence of Norfolk & Western Railway's president, R.H. Smith, a railroad man who had worked his way up from operations and was nearing retirement. He had insisted on keeping his office in an old N&W building in Roanoke because it offered a better view of passing trains.

When Link approached Smith bearing samples of his work and requesting access to the big locomotives, the older man readily complied. "He loved the idea," says Garver. "He loved steam."

Link reportedly never learned exactly what orders Smith issued to the conductors and dispatchers along the thousands of miles of N&W lines, but Garver figures it amounted to carte blanche.

"They would hold trains and slow things down," says Garver, citing one time when a scheduled passenger train on the Bristol line from Radford came into Link's viewfinder belching clouds of thick black smoke.

"Winston had promised not to capture black smoke," Garver says. Solution: The train (and its passengers) were sent back 10-20 miles so Link could re-set his equipment and get a cleaner shot.

"The conductor was not happy," notes Garver, "but he was overruled by the dispatcher."

Garver notes that Link might spend several days planning a single photograph. Such seemingly minute details as a light in a house window or an engineer's lamp might actually originate from Link's own flashbulbs.


Garver also helped Link capture sound from the rails. Wielding a massive reel-to-reel machine and its two lead auto batteries wasn't easy. But the sounds– of chirping crickets, yelping dogs, and, of course, rolling thunder– are key parts of the O. Winston Link museum experience.

Although the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum purchased Link prints in the 1970s, Limk didn't get a museum show until 1983.

"Winston had no idea what the art world was all about," says Garver, explaining Link's reluctance to promote his photos. After that first show, appreciation for Link's railroad photographs grew rapidly.

Garver notes that the modernizing impulse of the 1950s and 1960s destroyed more than just N&W steam trains. "Get rid of that old building– throw it out," he says, describing the spirit of the times. "But there's a much greater appreciation of history now," he says.

Although Link spent most of his life in relative obscurity, he reveled in the idea of a museum with all of his train photographs under one roof. By the turn of the century, Roanoke had warmed to the idea, but at the age of 86, Link died in January 2001.


"He died knowing that plans were under way," says museum manager Jay Saunders. "I like to think he was happy about that."

Now 69, Garver, the museum's organizing curator, has written nearly all the documentation for the exhibits, which were designed by Richmonder John Crank of 1717 Design Group. Garver likens their collaboration to a play: "I'm the author, and John Crank is the director," he says.

In Link's heyday, his nephew succeeded Garver as his assistant, and Garver went on to earn a graduate degree in art history. But he recalls with pride hauling around heavy photo and sound equipment on those southern trips with the now-renowned photographer.

"We got along famously," he says. "It was hard work, but Winston knew what he wanted and how to go about getting it."

"Hotshot Eastbound," Link's most famous image, thrills transportation buffs as it shows five kinds of transportation: train, plane, auto, human, and bicycle (propped against far side of foreground car).


"Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, Virginia," 1956


"Ghost Town, Stanley, Virgina, 1956."

The new museum offers lots of photos– plus lots of interactive exhibits.


Museum manager Jay Saunders.


J.W. Dalhouse polishes locomotive 127 at Shaffers Crossing, Roanoke, 1955


Joe McNew buys his weekly copy of
Grit  newspaper from Jerry Witherspoon in West Jefferson, N.C., 1955.

"Maud bows to the Virginia Creeper" is one of Link's few daytime rail shots. The Abingdon-area line is now a hiking trail.