Duping Link: Photo fans swarm Waynesboro


Commercial photographer O. Winston Link was on assignment in Staunton in the mid-1950s when he decided to use an evening off to jaunt over to Waynesboro to get a glimpse of the steam engines on the Norfolk & Western Railway, whose tracks bisect the city on the river located at the foot of the Blue Ridge.

Link liked what he saw on the last main-line railroad to operate exclusively with steam power. And in short order he had talked the station agent into allowing him to take what became his first night photograph of a steam locomotive.

For the next five years, Link was to spend much of his spare time on Norfolk & Western tracks in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland– chronicling the aging dinosaurs that were then on their way out, about to be replaced by locomotives powered by diesel engines.

"No one was really interested in steam trains. Diesel was the new thing," says Kent Chrisman, executive director of the History Museum of Western Virginia, which runs the O. Winston Link Museum, a Roanoke-based collection of the famed photog's works that opened last year.

"Who wanted to see a bunch of old trains?" ask Chrisman. "Even train enthusiasts in those days wanted to see the latest and the newest."

Link's place in the art wasn't secured until long after he had finished work on his 2,500-image steam-engine photo project. It wasn't until the 1980s that the world came to know of Link and what he had done in the foothills of the mid-Atlantic from 1955 to 1960.

People certainly know now. To mark the 50-year anniversary of his first nighttime steam-engine photo, more than 100 Link fans recently braved below-freezing conditions to gather at the site of the now-demolished Waynesboro station.

Norfolk Southern, the corporate successor to Norfolk & Western, assisted the Link Museum with the January 21 event by closing the rail line running through the River City for several hours to allow fans to walk in Link's footsteps, literally, with a setup at the location where he snapped his famous photo on January 21, 1955.

"I've been looking forward to this," said New Jersey native Robert Sullivan, a Link fan since 1995 who spent the weekend in Waynesboro soaking in the atmosphere that drew Link to the train tracks on the city's East Side a half-century ago.

"I want to see if I can duplicate Link's work, or do something similar to it," Sullivan said as he walked the tracks that Link traversed in 1955.

University of North Carolina faculty member Tony Reevy says it's important to remember Link's work.

"Since his first photo of a steam engine 50 years ago, the steam engine has passed almost completely from the scene, except for excursions and tourist railroads," says Reevy. "And many of the small towns he took photos of have declined. With the changes that we've seen in the past 50 years, it's important to come back and remember the scene of the first photo."

Museum director Chrisman says it's also important to remember the man on the other side of the lens.

"Here we are 50 years later, and we still have people who want to learn a little more about the kind of man who would take on a project like this," he says.

The O.W.L. photo that started it all.