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Roanoke Virginia, Trains and Photos

April 14, 2007

Written April 22

Dear Friends and Families,


This Saturday,Marianne was with family in California so I had a whole weekend to be a tourist all by myself. I had few requirements, just a haircut and some work from the office. I started the day with no plan. I'd looked at the map of southern Virginia, and seen a few places; Roanoke seemed the right combination of a new place and a short drive.

The drive down took about an hour, through rolling hills with the Blue Ridge in front of me. I got the haircut out of the way at a nondescript strip mall. On the way out, I asked the folks there what a tourist could do in the neighborhood on a rainy Saturday. There was silence, followed by inconclusive mumbling. This was not promising, but eventually someone recommended to just drive to the "Old Town" and look at what's there. That's what I did and I was very pleasantly surprised.

Old Town Roanoke isn't big and appears to be a work in progress. Like most small towns in America, much of the downtown has been raised and turned into parking lots surrounding a few modern buildings. "Old Towns" aren't the same as back home in Bavaria! Nevertheless, there are a handful of museums, a street market, and a scattering of boutique shops and restaurants. My lunch at Wertz's Restaurant and Wine Cellar may have been one of the best meals I've had on this trip.

The highlight, however, was trains. Roanoke has been home to the Norfolk and Western railroad company since the beginning of the western expansion of America. East-to-west, N&W lines linked the Atlantic coast with the Appalachian coal fields and beyond and north-to-south they linked the Old South with the Northeast, almost to New York. With their own coal fields, N&W was a king in the era of steam engines, building their fleet in shops here in Roanoke. The last regular steam trains in America were made and based here and successfully competed with diesel-electric trains up through the mid 1950's.

When it became clear that the age of steam engines was passing, a Brooklyn photographer name O. Wilford Links took on a multi-year project to document the passing glory. For five years, he spent several weeks a year staging elaborate shots of the N&W trains, most often at night. He quipped: "I can't move the sun and it's always in the wrong place. I can't even move the tracks so I had to create my own environment through lighting." Link used large-format film cameras and a stage-set array of flashbulbs. He used his training as an engineer to develop the complex schemes that could trigger two or three cameras and hundreds of flash bulbs, all carefully planned and arranged. His were not snapshots nor were they the natural-light "street" photos that had come into vogue by the mid 50's. It would take 30 years before Link's particular craft and artistry was put on display. If you are ever in the area, do take a look at the museum dedicated to his work.

A few of the O. Wilford Link collection. After five years, he had no more than a few hundred pictures, but each had been made with elaborate precision and care.
A typical Link shot: backlit steam engine, carefully staged people, and even the picture on the drive-in screen was selected to contrast the jet-age with the age of steam.
Each shot was carefully planned, with camera and light placement worked out in these notebooks. Link used flash bulbs of various sizes, sometimes hundreds of them for a single image.

Link did not make his annual trip to Virginia with just carry-on luggage. He needed multi-bulb flash apparatus and miles of wires. In the beginning, he even had to invent the mechanisms that were used to carefully synchronize the cameras and flash. Link may never have practiced the engineering he was trained for, but he certainly used that training to make memorable pictures.


The next part of my Railroad Saturday was a visit to the Virginia Museum of Transportation. I had the place almost to myself and, with neither kids nor "significant other" to limit my wandering, I thoroughly enjoyed "playing with the trains".


Inside the museum entrance are reconstructions of a pair of train terminals, including the original Roanoke station, when the place was still called "Big Lick". I can understand why they changed the name.  

Outside, some trains were under cover, but most displays were out in the open. Most of the machines on display were not much changed from when they were removed from service. The old Washington DC streetcar was old and worn, but seemed more real because of it. The former private car for the president of the Norfolk & Western was there, waiting for new paint and cleaning.


Out in the yard, scattered among "normal" trains, were other "transportation" relics. This old truck , still with solid wheels, looked like the driver had just gotten out, opened the hood, and gone away to find parts. Next to it was this gray "tug boat" that had served for 50 years pulling, boats through locks of the Panama Canal.




But the main attraction in the Virginia Museum of Transportation has to be the steam locomotives. The N & W railroad used steam up through the mid-50's, in part because they owned huge Appalachian coal fields and, in part, because they built the engines and cars in their own Roanoke shops. The combination enabled the steam engines to remain profitable decades after they had disappeared elsewhere in America.

The most complex of the fast freight trains were the "A Class" locomotives. These were monsters, and were regular stars in Link pictures. Number 1218 has been restored, at least for appearances, and it seemed as sophisticated as any modern machine - and bigger.



Next to the A Class fast freight locomotive was a J Class, the last passenger train locomotive of the steam era. This particular engine was in regular service throughout the 50's and continued to operate into the 60's and 70's for special occasions.



Out in the yard, the engines and cars were not "fully" restored. The chairs of the locomotive engineers seemed just as if the crew would come back, just as soon as the boss ordered. I found that the signs of human wear and tear made everything much more intimate, if huge old machines can be termed "intimate".





  One of my favorites was this red caboose. It was easy to imagine a crew making meals here, and looking out the small windows that gave the best view.  


And Roanoke itself? It suffers the fate of so many small American cities, decay and far too many signs of parking lots replacing a downtown. Nevertheless, there did seem to be hope, with a two- or three-block "old town" and a nicely restored hotel from the grand era of train travel. Here is where guests of the N&W were put up while they visited the nearby company office and shops, back when steam made Roanoke a center of the train business.


So, do visit Roanoke if you get a chance. It's a nice town, surrounded by mountains, and filled with a bit of nostalgia, at least for engineers who consider steam locomotives the pinnacle of mechanical engineering. Better than nuclear power plants.


John and Marianne.


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