Reviewed by Sandra Brown Kelly
SANDRA BROWN KELLY is a Roanoke freelance writer and teacher.
Anyone who ever knew a person who worked on the railroad, or merely enjoyed watching trains go by, should gobble up “Life Along the Line.”
The newest publication from Abrams publishing sponsored by the O. Winston Link Museum and the Historical Society of Western Virginia packs history, photography and sound into a coffee table publication. “Life Along the Line” contains 180-plus photographs, a full and well-written history of photographer Link and of his documentation of the end of the steam train era along Norfolk and Western Railway tracks and a CD of never released train recordings by Link.
In his foreword, Scott Lothes, executive director of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art in Madison, Wis., likens “Life Along the Line” to the tradition of nighttime story telling in Appalachia, noting that the book draws mostly on Link’s nighttime train photographs to document how life used to be on and along the tracks.
Link, a name synonymous with Roanoke since the O. Winston Link Museum opened in 2004 in the refurbished train station near Hotel Roanoke, was an advertising photographer who was fascinated by trains. He was working for Carl Byoir & Associates in New York on assignment in Staunton in 1955 to photograph Westinghouse air conditioners when he took a side trip to Waynesboro to find the Norfolk and Western tracks. At the time, N&W was the last railroad using steam engines.
The two-tier depot Link encountered alongside those tracks in Waynesboro was outfitted with the symbols of the time: an old telephone, a telegraph sounder, a manual typewriter and an old clock. It was the perfect setting to lure Link into his most ambitious project — documenting the end of steam in the country, and that is what he did over the next five years.
Link enlisted the support of the railroad for his project through its public relations office. He found sympathetic ears in Ben Bane Dulaney, head of public relations, and R.H. “Racehorse” Smith, then N&W president. The book suggests N&W was the last to keep running on coal because the railroad was a conduit for moving the fossil fuel from Appalachia to markets and thereby reluctant to quit using it to run its engines.
The railroad gave Link almost unlimited access, which resulted in more than 2,000 black-and-white photographs and more than 400 in color and cost Link $125,000 of his personal funds, according to author Tony Reevy.
Reevy, senior associate director of the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, traces Link’s infatuation with trains to a time during World War II when Link was stationed at a secret facility owned by Columbia University near the Long Island Rail Road. While he worked on a team to develop an airborne submarine detector, Link also watched those trains roll by and eventually photographed many of them. Those photographs have not been collected.
Reevy weaves Link’s personal life into an account of the increasing greater recognition for his work as art.
A failed first marriage produced a son, Conway, who supplied this book’s afterword. A second marriage ended with that wife going to jail because she allegedly stole some of Link’s photographs. During these years, Link also worked on other photographic projects, such as documentation of the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island, N.Y.
Simultaneous to these happenings, Link’s work was seen as an adjunct to the study of the environment, social and cultural, created by railroads. His photos not only show the steam engines, but also the railroad workers and passengers and the homes, business and fields along the tracks.
For those already familiar with Link, the book will be like an old friend with photo plates devoted to the horse “Old Maude” bowing its head to the Virginia Creeper as it arrives at Green Cove, “Hester Fringer’s Living Room on the Tracks” at Lithia.
Readers of this book also gain insight into the world of night photography and learn who might have influenced whom. Did Richard Steinheimer, Jim Shaughnessy and Philip Hastings influence Link? In any case, the text is sprinkled with titles of other railroad works for railfans and/or photographers to check out.
At the very least, “Life Along the Line” works as a triple dessert.
It can provide many quick glances or a long learning session about the communities the trains went through, about railroading as it used to be and about specialized photography.