Post-war Railroads

O. Winston Link

One of steam's greatest charms was at the same time its greatest weakness. To function, the steam locomotive required a substantial coterie of attendants and an elaborate physical structure of support. Many of traditional railroadings' most cherished icons-the water tower, the coaling dock, the turntable, the roundhouse-existed to fuss over the steam engine. Workers known as "hostlers" were kept busy coaling, watering, and lubricating locomotives between runs, and tending their fires-building, cleaning, dropping, and banking. In the roundhouses, workers performed routine inspections at regular, mandated intervals and made relatively minor "running repairs." In backshops, heavy overhauls and rebuilding occupied boilermakers, machinists, and members of various other crafts.

Fortunately, these final days of steam are well-documented, since they came at a time when the enthusiasm for trains (and particularly steam) was an established and growing hobby, and when quality cameras were common enough to be in the hands of many talented and dedicated fans. Plenty of fine photographers captured a plethora of images, most of them informative, some deeply evocative. But the work of one man-O. Winston Link, a New York City-based commercial photographer-covering one railroad, the Norfolk & Western, stands out from the rest as a composite document of steam's dying days.

In what was truly a labor of love, Link made numerous trips to the railroad in the late 1950s, photographing the machines and, significantly, the people who worked on and around them. His project was unique, especially since most of the images were made at night, allowing a degree of graphic control not possible in daylight. The pictures were created with a keen sense of composition and an inventiveness that bordered on the madcap, so elaborately constructed were such scenes as a Class A roaring past a drive-in movie theater. Complex syncronized flash set-ups were required in many cases, and the technical expertise was remarkable throughout. Hundreds of images-published in Steam, Steel, and Stars (1983) and The Last Steam Railroad in America (1995)-create a richly human portrait that has gained a wide and general audience.