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O. Winston Link portrait
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old steam locomotive

O. Winston Link
For over a century America has carried on a love affair with the steam locomotive. It still represents the romance of the train. Watch one of the epic old movies and you will be awed by the power of the old steam engine pulling into the station puffing a cloud of smoke above it.

One railroad stood out above all others for the popularity of the steam locomotive in our culture, Norfolk & Western, headquartered in Roanoke Virginia for most of its existence, ruled the southern railways from 1838 and 1982. During the Civil War, it was the Confederacy's major railway.  Norfolk & Western manufactured its own steam locomotives mainly the Roanoke Shops. They were the last railroad company to convert their service from steam to diesel. 


O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia 
O. Winston Link Museum 

Roanoke was one of the biggest railroad hubs at the time. So to track down the romance of the rail a trip to Roanoke, Virginia was in order. One of the best places to learn railroad lore is at the O. Winston Link Museums in Roanoke. O. Winston Link was a commercial photographer and a railfan. He is credited with chronicling the end of the steam era in railroad travel.

For about five years in the early 1950s, Link dedicated his life to photographing the Norfolk & Western Railroad. Since he could not control the happenings going on around the tracks and the sun's position in daytime, he took most of his photographs at night. With his background in Civil engineering and photography he was meticulous about photographing the mechanical details and with using local people as models. Shannon Lugar was our guide there. She explained how Link would form a connection with the people whom he used in his photographs. Link was in a tiny Virginia town called Vesuvius and stopped at a gas station. There he met a young couple both 16 years old on their first date. He paid them a quarter apiece to sit in his convertible in a drive in movie and pose for a shot of a steam engine in the background.  

picture of couple in old convertable at O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia 
Sometimes the Electricity Fails 
The photograph called, Hotshot Eastbound, became one of his most famous works. It symbolizes the changing of an era, the drive in with its fifties vintage cars, the train exiting the picture and on the screen, the newest form of popular transportation, an airplane.

He used the same couple in another famous photo called Sometimes the Electricity Fails.  In this photo, the kids are seated in the same car, Link's 1952 Buick convertible, while a attendant pumps gas from an old type gravity pump while Locomotive #131, a K2a Mountain, 4-8-2, sits in the background. Shannon led us to the actual pump used in the photo sitting right there in the museum. The artifacts at this museum are so unique. She also told us the rest of the story. "Against all odds that young couple later married and now they bring their kids and grandkids to the museum."

antique gravity gas pump at O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia 
Shannon shows us the gas pump 

By 1960, the year Norfolk & Western completed the transition to diesel, Link had accumulated 2400 negatives. He did it all using his own money. No one was buying rail pictures that. He also made sound recordings of the trains which sold somewhat more. They helped him finance the photography.. Link claimed his love for trains stemmed from their similarity to people. "The train is as close to a human being as you can get. It talks, it moves, it grunts and groans. And each engine has its own characteristics–its own sound and smell and sights."

From the Link Museum, you can take a walk along the Railwalk, an outdoor museum with interactive signage, displays and whistles, telling the history of the railroad in Roanoke up to the present day.  And is a short half mile to the Virginia Museum of Transportation, located in Roanoke's historic Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station. I was awed by the size and scope of the collection. Along with the rail artifacts, including over 50 locomotives and other rail cars, the museum contains samples of most other types of transportation.

Norfolk & Western’s 1218 at Virginia Museum of Transportation
Norfolk & Western's 1218 

That's where I found the great old engine one pictured in the header.  It's Norfolk & Western's 1218, a steam locomotive that at one time was the strongest-pulling operational steam locomotive in the world built here at the Roanoke shops. It is a four-cylinder simple articulated locomotive with a 2-6-6-4, known as the Whyte system wheel arrangement.

Another treasure in the transportation Museum is Engine #6. There were only of this one 14 built. It is the oldest steam locomotive in the collection, built January 1897 for the Norfolk &Western Railway. It literally was "the little engine that could." In its heyday, it could pull up to 50 wooden rail cars at a speed of 35 mph. It was retired in January 1955.

Engine 1976 at Virginia Museum of Transportation
Locomotive number 1776 

The railroad has always represented the best in American innovation so it is not surprising that there was something special done to represent the Bicentennial of American Independence. Thomas C. Heinrich, who was a trainee and later became assistant roadmaster at Mullens, WV, suggested that since locomotive number 1776 was ready for an overhaul in 1973, suggesting it be painted to celebrate the bicentennial.  The following year, #1976 sported its bright new color scheme. Thick red and white stripes ran the length of the locomotive and its cab was painted a striking blue color with a circle of 13 white stars on the front sides. From 1974 through 1978, the engine bore witness to Norfolk and Western's patriotism across the 14 states serviced by the system.

Engine Number 9, oldest locomotive at Virginia Museum of Transportation
Engine Number 6 

At its makeover in 1978, the engine was again painted N&W black and continued in service until Leap Day in February, 1988. When the locomotive was donated to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in 1991 it was once again painted in its patriotic scheme but the paint job did not last. In 2011, fundraising was begun for another restoration of the 1776.  That year, the engine was a People's Award Choice Winner in the Virginia Association of Museums' Top Ten Endangered Artifacts competition. Trains Magazine deemed the 1776 the winner of the annual Preservation Award over other 120 entries. The restoration was completed in 2012 and the 1776 now awaits your visit to Roanoke.

Roanoke is Railfan Heaven so don't delay. Go now!

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