I’ve Been Working on the Railroad
“Not one in a million Americans ever again will ride a scheduled mainline passenger train behind a live and breathing steam locomotive. That time is gone. “
- liner notes from The Fading Giant
It’s impossible to ignore the train in Roanoke, the nightly screech of freight trains edging through town, the whistles that pierce the city’s hum throughout the day. Each morning, Whitney and I run across a bridge and peer down on the train tracks below, hundreds of boxcars full of coal form a line clear to the horizon. There hasn’t been a single morning when one of us hasn’t commented on the sight.
Bill Arnold was born 50 feet from the tracks.
“My dad was an employee of the Norfolk and Western Railway. I lived in an N&W company house for seven of my earlier years and lived and breathed railroading — I think I have cinders in my blood,” said Arnold, self-proclaimed railroad enthusiast.
Arnold grew up Radford, Virginia, a small town not far from Roanoke. Radford was a true railroad hub. Instead of church bells or the gong of a clock tower, a steam whistle used to keep time. Every day at seven in the morning, at twelve noon and at six o’clock the whistle could be heard all over town. “I used to go up to the powerhouse after supper and talk to the foreman and ask him, if I could blow the six o’clock whistle.” said Arnold.
Arnold, first met the railroad photographer O. Winston Link in 1987 during the National Railway Historical Society Convention at the Hotel Roanoke. He came to the mobilebooth to talk about his relationship with Link.
O. Winston Link, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, but fell in love with trains while working in Mineola, Long Island near the Long Island Railroad in the 1940’s. His interest in the railroad became an obsession from 1955 through 1960 when he photographed the Norfolk & Western Railroad Company, the last line of steam powered engines in the United States.
Link first visited Roanoke, headquarters of the N&W Railroad in 1946. He walked up to Jefferson Street, a main thoroughfare that crossed the railroad tracks, and stood there as one of the large freight locomotives came by and scared his one-year-old son to death. Soon after, he met with the president of the N&W Railroad and told him, “I want to photograph your steam engines. I don’t want any money. I just want free access.”
For five years Link rode the rails, surveying spots to photograph, and recording the sounds of steam engines in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. “He was a persuasive person. He could make the train back up or slow down to make a shot just right,” said Arnold. Link made 2400 photos during that period. He captured life along the tracks including the passengers and people who worked the rails. He told Arnold, “I was making a preservation of something that would completely disappear.”
“Train 202 was scheduled to arrive at White Top northbound at 1:06pm but often arrived hours late. Whenever it did arrive, Charlie Dolinger, White Top’s mailman, was waiting with the day’s mail.”
Property of the O. Winston Link Museum. Roanoke, VA
After Link died in 2001, Bill and his wife Ellen were instrumental in the founding of the O. Winston Link Museum here in Roanoke, which opened in 2004. “Winston wanted the O Winston Link Museum in Roanoke because of his relationship here,” said Arnold. Bill and Ellen continue to work as volunteers at the Museum.
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