Step Aboard, 2012
(Mural at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, photographer unknown)
While in Roanoke, Virginia, this past weekend, I went to the Link Museum. O. Winston Link was a commercial photographer based in New York. He was known in the 1930s for his clever PR photography, but became best known for his superb night photographs made during the 1950s of trains—specifically, steam trains operated by the Norfolk & Western Railway. Link’s photographs involved meticulous coordination and complex arrangements of flash units, sometimes dozens of them. His photographs—made in places like Grottoes, Lithia, Luray, Vesuvius, Rural Retreat, Iaeger, Damascus, White Top, Green Cove and Husk—so frequently included both a steam locomotive in the background and some kind of domestic scene in the foreground that it would be easy to call his work formulaic. But the exhibit of images at the Link Museum demonstrates far greater range and artistic talent.
By the way, when Link was asked why he made his photographs at night he said shooting in the daytime was too difficult “because the sun is never where you want it.” How true.
The Link Museum is located in what used to be Roanoke’s passenger rail terminal. I used that station many times as a child when I rode the train back and forth from Norfolk to visit my father. Years later, after passenger service had been discontinued, my father had an office in this building.
The N&W Roanoke terminal was designed by the famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who is perhaps best remembered for designing the Lucky Strike cigarette package, the Studebaker Avanti, and vending machines for Coca Cola. Here’s the irony: Loewy also designed sleek locomotives for the Pennsylvania Railroad, but all the N&W had him do was design this provincial train station.
One of the places my father lived in Roanoke was at the corner of Blenheim Road. Blenheim Palace, in Oxfordshire, England, is the ancestral home of the Churchill family. When my father moved back to Virginia Beach in the 1970s, he lived on Churchill Court.
We celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday with a dinner in the Regency Dining Room of the Hotel Roanoke. The hotel was built and operated by the Norfolk & Western Railway until it was donated to Virginia Tech not too long ago. I can’t say much about the meal. The dining room was competing for attention in the kitchen that night against a large wedding and a convention of Barber Shop Quartets. Nonetheless, the hotel is a grand place for a birthday party. And if I might be allowed a fifth link: my father, whose work in Roanoke consisted mostly of developing and introducing new freight handling technologies, once had an office in the hotel, too, when the railroad’s management thought it best to get the innovators out of the bureaucratic hive of the corporate headquarters across the street.