A Gorgeous Photographic Elegy to the Last Great Steam Train

Photographs of the Norfolk and Western Railway, America's last great steam railroad.

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1954 Norfolk and Western Railway System Map (Norfolk and Western Historical Society)

What does the world around us look like? Do we have big cities with tall skyscrapers, sprawling suburbs with lawns and garages, or small towns with dense little centers?

Few things dictate our built environment as much as the technology of transit -- what we use to move people and things. Over the course of the 20th century, that technology shifted dramatically, from horses and trains to cars and planes, but it did so gradually, with jumps and starts, unevenly, with older technologies persisting in certain pockets longer than in others.

One of those holdouts was the region stretching from the coal mines of Ohio, West Virginia, and western Virginia, out east to the Norfolk port, from where the coal was shipped around the country and around the world. There, the Norfolk and Western Railway continued to run on steam -- not the more newfangled diesel-electric -- until May of 1960, surviving both because of an allegiance to the coal mines that fed it, and because it ran classes of locomotives that were some of the finest ever made.

Steam engines are mythic beasts -- massive, belching beasts that, in the 1950s, were on their way to becoming extinct. In 1946, steam locomotives moved 78 percent of American rail-freight traffic. By 1951, that number fell to 31, and by 1959, it was all but gone -- less than one percent.

Diesel wasn't the only threat: The rise of the automobile and plane meant the decline of passenger rail more generally. Though modern diesel freight trains still run along much of the N&W, many of the towns have no passenger rail service, shifting the center of town life away from the train station, toward the roads and stores our cars service so well.

Thumbnail image for OWinstonLinkLifeLine03720J_edited-1300.jpgBut before these great machines totally died out, they were visited by O. Winston Link, one of the greatest railroad photographers of all time, whose work along the N&W is collected in a new book O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line (Abrams), with accompanying text by rail historian Tony Reevy. Link's photographs are recognized for their cinematic lighting, their ability to tell a whole story in a single image, and, often, their nighttime settings, a few examples of which are selected below.

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Train #2 arrives at the Waynesboro Station, Waynesboro, Virgnia, April 14, 1955 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)

According to Reevy, more than anything, the decline of steam locomotives had a major and direct impact on the workers who ran and maintained these great machines. "The steam engine," he wrote to me, "was a labor-intensive beast. Each locomotive required an engineer and a fireman and steam engines all had to be operated separately; so, two steam engines, a 'double-header,' required two engineers and two firemen." Diesel units, on the other hand, can be joined together and operated by one engineer. Steam firemen were no longer needed.

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Electrician J. W. Dalhouse, a close-up view. Shaffers Crossing, Roanoke, Virginia, March 19, 1955 (© Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)

"What is more," Reevy continued, "steam engines were maintenance intensive, requiring frequent lineside supplies of water and coal, frequent light maintenance by repair employees in specialized facilities ('roundhouses') and fairly frequent heavy repairs in shop facilities." Much of the book showcases these employees, men at work on the trains, but whose jobs disappeared with the steam engines.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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