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I’ve Been Working on the Railroad

Posted on Tuesday, October 21st, 2008.

“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.

Bill Arnold, Kim Parker, Ellen Arnold
From left to right: Kim Parker, Bill Arnold, Ellen Arnold

“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.

Courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum
“Ralph White, conductor, contemplates Engine 429 at a stop in Damascus to drop off freight cars.”
Property of the O. Winston Link Museum. Roanoke, VA

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.

Courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum
“O. Winston Link and George Thom with night flash equipment, 1956.”
Property of the O. Winston Link Museum. Roanoke, VA

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.

Courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum
“Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, Virginia, 1956.”
Property of the O. Winston Link Museum. Roanoke, VA

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.”

Courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum
“Cows are herded in for milking on the Norvel Ryan farm in Shawsville, Virginia, as train No. 3 The Pocahontas passes in the distance, 1955.”
Property of the O. Winston Link Museum. Roanoke, VA

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.”

Courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum
“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.

Courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum
“Maude bows to the Virginia Creeper in Green Cove, Virginia, 1956″
Property of the O. Winston Link Museum. Roanoke, VA

7 Responses to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

To preserve the StoryCorps mission and experience for our readers and participants, comments are subject to the StoryCorps Terms of Service. Comments may be held for moderation or removed if deemed offensive or off-topic. Please do not resubmit your comment if you don't see it right away, it will be approved as soon as possible. Thank you.

  • Thanks for sharing the picture of the Green Cove Depot Nina was raised in greencove. i can remember watching that train go by from my aunt’s house. the picture made a great background for my computer.

    Comment from Steve Walls on November 30, 2009 at 3:21 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Great story and pictures. I was born 25 years too late! I remember seeing a few locomotives when I was about ten years old. They were attention getters for sure.

    Comment from Dan Almashy on January 15, 2009 at 10:22 am - Reply to this Comment
  • Nina- Just as I was reading this, the train whistle was in the background here in Tulsa! As I have been travelling since June, the train whistle has been a part of this experience. I’ve heard them now in Laramie, Denver, Grand Junction, Grand Rapids and now here in Tulsa. I have come to realize how central to American culture and life trains really are!

    Comment from sara esrick on October 24, 2008 at 11:14 am - Reply to this Comment
  • Thanks Tara B. I hope you keep reading and listening!

    Comment from Nina on October 23, 2008 at 9:35 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Beautiful! Not only beautiful pictures, but what a story! Just found “storycorps” and what an amazing idea!!

    Comment from Tara B. on October 22, 2008 at 7:44 am - Reply to this Comment
  • What a great place. The shot with the kids playing in the water in the foreground and the train in the distance is amazing.

    Comment from alex on October 21, 2008 at 3:23 pm - Reply to this Comment
  • Nina, great blog. Link’s photographs are so beautiful. The shots at night with bright flash are incredible, almost eerie. Thank you for sharing this history.

    Comment from Chaela on October 21, 2008 at 2:56 pm - Reply to this Comment

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