A Gorgeous Photographic Elegy to the Last Great Steam Train

The Atlantic

Photographs of the Norfolk and Western Railway, America's last great steam railroad.

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1954 Norfolk and Western Railway System Map (Norfolk and Western Historical Society)

What does the world around us look like? Do we have big cities with tall skyscrapers, sprawling suburbs with lawns and garages, or small towns with dense little centers?

Few things dictate our built environment as much as the technology of transit -- what we use to move people and things. Over the course of the 20th century, that technology shifted dramatically, from horses and trains to cars and planes, but it did so gradually, with jumps and starts, unevenly, with older technologies persisting in certain pockets longer than in others.

One of those holdouts was the region stretching from the coal mines of Ohio, West Virginia, and western Virginia, out east to the Norfolk port, from where the coal was shipped around the country and around the world. There, the Norfolk and Western Railway continued to run on steam -- not the more newfangled diesel-electric -- until May of 1960, surviving both because of an allegiance to the coal mines that fed it, and because it ran classes of locomotives that were some of the finest ever made.

Steam engines are mythic beasts -- massive, belching beasts that, in the 1950s, were on their way to becoming extinct. In 1946, steam locomotives moved 78 percent of American rail-freight traffic. By 1951, that number fell to 31, and by 1959, it was all but gone -- less than one percent.

Diesel wasn't the only threat: The rise of the automobile and plane meant the decline of passenger rail more generally. Though diesel cargo trains still run along sections of the N&W, many of the towns have no passenger rail service, shifting the center of town life away from the train station, toward the roads and stores our cars service so well.

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But before these great machines totally died out, they were visited by O. Winston Link, one of the greatest railroad photographers of all time, whose work along the N&W is collected in a new book O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line, with accompanying text by rail historian Tony Reevey. Link's photographs are recognized for their cinematic lighting, their ability to tell a whole story in a single image, and, often, their nighttime settings, a few examples of which are selected below.

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Train #2 arrives at the Waynesboro Station, Waynesboro, Virgnia, April 14, 1955 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)

According to Reevey, more than anything, the decline of steam locomotives had a major and direct impact on the workers who ran and maintained these great machines. "The steam engine," he wrote to me, "was a labor-intensive beast. Each locomotive required an engineer and a fireman and steam engines all had to be operated separately; so, two steam engines, a 'double-header,' required two engineers and two firemen." Diesel units, on the other hand, can be joined together and operated by one engineer. Steam firemen were no longer needed.

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Electrician J. W. Dalhouse, a close-up view. Shaffers Crossing, Roanoke, Virginia, March 19, 1955 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)

"What is more," Reevey continued, "steam engines were maintenance intensive, requiring frequent lineside supplies of water and coal, frequent light maintenance by repair employees in specialized facilities ('roundhouses') and fairly frequent heavy repairs in shop facilities." Much of the book showcases these employees, men at work on the trains, but whose jobs disappeared with the steam engines.

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Lubricating wristpin. Bluefield, West Virginia, June 20, 1955 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)

Reevey says that beyond the direct effects on labor, the biggest changes in the region were not brought about by the rise of diesel but by the decline of passenger rail with the arrival of the private automobile and jet travel. In perhaps what is Link's most famous photograph (it even made a cameo in a 1998 Simpsons episode, "Dumbbell Indemnity"), all three forms of transportation co-exist, one shot that captures the shifting transit landscape of mid-20th-century America.

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Hotshot Eastbound. Iaeger, West Virginia, August 2, 1956 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)

Another of Link's more famous works, The Birmingham Special, also captures that juxtaposition, a sly irony filling out the narrative: Here is this monster, this steam-breathing beast, and here is the small bug, the car, that undid it.

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The Birmingham Special crosses Bridge 201. Near Radford, Virginia, December 17, 1957 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)

It is this shift, Reevey writes, that "had a greater impact on the small towns of the Norfolk & Western's service area than the passing of steam. Even in 1950, most lineside communities on the N&W, and on American railroads, had railroad stations that provided passenger, freight, express and Western Union (telegram) service. Elderly folks, children, the poor, could travel without being dependent upon access to a private automobile. The station ... often served as a, or the, community center. As railroad passenger service faded, small towns ... were left isolated, 'off the beaten track.' The waning of American transportation choices has combined with the relative growth of large cities, the decline of small farms, the coming of big box stores and a number of other factors to disadvantage many such communities compared to urban areas.

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Train #17, the Birmingham Special, arriving at Rural Retreat. Rural Retreat, Virginia, December 26, 1957 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)

All of this totaled up to a shift in not just landscape but culture. Steam engines, Reevey wrote to me, were "highly reflected in our music, our folklore, and our art. Perhaps due to its animate appearance (seeming to breathe, with an air pump that sounds like a heartbeat and so on), the steam locomotive added a richness to the American cultural scene that the diesel locomotive does not." In losing steam power, America lost that particular artistic inspiration, that icon. "At least," Reevey reflected, "even with diesel locomotives, we still have whistles in the night."

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Hester Fringer's living room on the tracks. Lithia, Virginia, December 16, 1955 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)

Steam may be just a bunch of hot air, but that hot air packed a lot of power, fueling a region and the people who lived there for decades. In Link's images we see that power, lighting up a night sky and a lonely town.

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Ghost Town. Stanley, Virginia, February 1, 1957 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)





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