Iron Horses in America

In the United States, at the beginning of the 20th century, steam locomotives were a powerful agent in the success of the American industrial machine. A driving factor that helped build our robust economy today, steam trains, or aptly put, locomotives, traversed the American heartland sinuously, melding with the natural landscape. Billowing smoke through the horizon, the locomotives symbolized a romanticist notion of man merging with nature while bringing modernity to ordinary Americans day after day, thus the term “Iron Horse.” Along mountains, valleys, and rivers, as well as passing through the remote small towns of the North American countryside, these trains connected an aspiring nation that was building itself through some of history’s most compelling eras.

Preserving the Golden Age of Railroads

In the 1950s, O. Winston Link, a photographer with an astute affinity for technical photography and a fond fascination with trains, set out to record the last steam locomotives operating in the country. After contacting the Norfolk and Western Railway and gaining access to the company’s premises, Link would begin recording the last surviving fleet of locomotives against the night sky, preserving the golden age of railroads and the remaining vestiges of American 20th-century industry.

The Early Years

Ogle Winston Link was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1914. He spent his childhood in the borough with his siblings and parents, who encouraged Link’s interest in the arts, introducing him to the medium of photography. Showing technical prowess from an early age, Winston Link built his own photographic enlarger while in high school. After that, Link would attend the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and, suitably, graduate with a degree in civil engineering. After graduation, he found a job as a commercial photographer for the big public relations firm, Byoir and Associates. Eventually, his work would enjoy wide publication in features for significant publications like Life magazine, all the while developing a unique aesthetic.


Winston Link contributed to the war effort during WWII using his education as a civil engineer and his skills as a professional photographer by working at Airborne Instruments Laboratory on countermeasures for guided missiles. After the war in 1946, Link would open a photography studio in New York City and work with major corporations.

Staunton, Virginia

In 1955, O. Winston Link would begin exploring a series of photographs that would have a lasting impact on the medium’s history. After accepting a job that would take him to Staunton, Virginia, Link noticed the Norfolk and Western Railway, the last major steam railroad in the country. The company was ceasing operations as an industry-wide change from steam to diesel was in effect. Link was further impressed by the human connection to the railroad, a thread of sparsely spread communities that lived near the tracks. The photographer noticed not only the facilities and locomotives but the trackside communities that were profoundly immersed with the steam locomotives and rail transportation.

O. Winston Link, Sometimes the Electricity Fails, Vesuvius, Virginia
O. Winston Link, Sometimes the Electricity Fails, Vesuvius, Virginia, Executed in 1956, Printed 1988, Silver Gelatin Photograph

From 1955 to 1960, Winston Link returned to Virginia around 20 times. He photographed the clouds of steam and massive steel bodies of the locomotives passing through the Virginian and Appalachian communities, documenting some of the last days of the steam engine. In this unique quest, Link traveled by night covering a large swath of area, from Virginia and North Carolina to Maryland. With his preference for capturing the locomotives at night and prior experience with highly technical photographs for corporate clients, Link had the aptitude to develop a unique flash photography system. His unique system rigged flashbulbs, sometimes up to 80 of them, to fire simultaneously and allow the camera to capture the high-speed trains moving past his frame at night. As to why he chose to take his pictures at night, the photographer notedly said:

“I can’t move the sun – and it’s always in the wrong place – and I can’t even move the tracks, so I had to create my own environment through lighting.” – O. Winston Link.

O. Winston Link, Birmingham Special, Rural Retreat, Virginia, 1957
O. Winston Link, Birmingham Special, Rural Retreat, Virginia, Executed in 1957, Printed 1986, Silver Gelatin Photograph

A Trailblazer in Night Photography

O. Winston Link’s perseverance in recording the nightly locomotives that passed Appalachia made him a pioneer not only for his subject matter but also as a trailblazer in night photography. Most likely inspired by his legendary predecessor, the Hungarian-French photographer Brassai, who captured the underbelly of Paris by night, Winston Link’s contributions to the preservation of American history helped chronicle these once, one-of-a-kind towns. Whether at the drive-in, splashing in the river below a railway bridge, pumping gas trackside by a passing locomotive, or directing a train through the quiet night of the rural countryside, Link’s pictures conserve small towns, whose lives revolved around the coming and going of steam engines. Through the rising pillars of steam, the sounds of bells and whistles announcing the arrival of the steam engines, and the camaraderie of community members in his pictures, Winston Link preserves a romantic, golden age of American railroads. When asked what about steam engines he found so appealing, Link said:

“I guess it’s because of the places they go. They’re always going through some mountains, through the valleys, and through the rivers, and forests, it’s always country. And I’ve lived in New York City, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where you didn’t have anything like that. So, it’s always great to get on a train and take a long trip. I suppose that’s part of it. And the sounds that it makes, the smells that it has. It has a bell in it, it has air pumps, and it has valves that are releasing shots of steam every now and then. It has a turbo, which has a whine to it. It has a beautiful whistle, the old steam engines had different whistles, all had different characteristics and different sounds. And they had smells from hot grease and oil, the smell of coal smoked, the soft coal, has a nice smell to it as long as you don’t get it blasted in the face, as long as you’re far away from it, its Ok. It’s things like that. The sound of the wheels, the sound of the drivers, you can tell exactly what’s happening to the engine, and how fast its going, if the rods are lose, it makes different sounds. So, it has all these characteristics. The diesel engine is great, it’s very efficient, there’s nothing like them but, it’ll never replace a steam engine.” – O. Winston Link, 1980s.

Worldwide Acclaim

“Link was prolific, taking more than 2,000 images and 100 7-inch reels of sound recordings in 21 trips. Today, Link’s work constitutes the single most important photographic series taken of the region. Largely ignored for more than 20 years following their production, Winston’s work enjoyed a series of international exhibitions, recordings and two published books beginning in the 1980s. Today, Link’s N&W images are known worldwide. Wishing that his legacy be preserved and remain available to the communities he traversed, Link began negotiations with Roanoke’s Historical Society of Western Virginia in 2000, personally selecting the site for the Museum, the former N&W Passenger Station.” – O. Winston Link Museum.

The Later Years

In the later years, O. Winston Link’s career was reenergized, and Tom Garver helped with the setup and the shooting. He sums up the contributions of Link’s work.

“Winston’s spirit so imbued the project that it was never really work. It was such a pleasure, there was also that kind of tingle that this was high adventure. You know, you had to get it. There were times when we would be absolutely exhausted, I remember once, we arrived at a place to tape record in this case, we got there at six and discovered that the train had left at five, we got there the next day at five and discovered it had left at four, we got there at four and that time it didn’t come until midnight. So, we sat there and waited and talked about what we were doing and about life and how it was changing and the many varieties of architecture and construction and the quality of things, how they were disappearing. So, there was this great intense spirit to really document and record this, to capture it. I think what I didn’t realize is how much we were capturing a whole way of life that was disappearing. Not only steam locomotives versus diesel locomotives but this isolated small town individualized kind of America that was vanishing.” –  Tom Garver, Curator and Museum Director, a former assistant for Link’s photo projects.

Leaving an American Legacy

O. Winston Link had the spirit of an artist and an overriding passion for preserving what was so special for him. The combination of his inventiveness, an enormous capacity for work and problem-solving, and an overreaching skill as a photographer, all married together, and, as a result, the photographer left us a legacy from a special time in America. He mythologized this dynamic form of transportation that helped expand America’s industrial base and laid the foundation for the American Century.