Tuesday 22 April 2014

A Photographic Elegy to the Last Great Steam Train

On first glance at the photo, one sees a couple huddled together in a convertible, one of several cars whose occupants are watching a movie at the Drive In.  However, this photograph, taken by O. Winston Link, shows much more.  One can't help but notice the giant steam locomotive belching smoke as it makes its way past the Drive In.  And, of course, one sees the airplane in the middle of the movie screen.  Link's photograph shows how, in the middle of the 20th century, America's landscape was changing from one dominated by trains to planes and automobiles.  

In 1946, 78% of rail freight in the United States was shipped by steam.  Within five years, that number had dropped to 31%.  And by 1959, that number had dropped to only 1%.  Three states, however, held out --Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia -- where the Norfolk & Western Railway continued to run on steam until 1960.  Because these states produced most of the country's coal, which fueled the "belching beasts", it was advantageous for them to keep them running.  

Photographer O. Winston Link spent the latter half of the 1950's capturing images of what some call "one of the finest locomotives".  He gives us glimpses of small town America, of towns where the railroad station was the centre of the community, where houses were built right beside the railroad tracks, where workmen toiled in roundhouses to maintain these giant beasts.  There was something romantic about the steam engine:  the sound of it passing in the night, the look of the smoke puffing from its roof, the rhythm of its engine.  Life would not be the same without the locomotive.

Note:  Read O. Winston Link:  Along the Lines (Abrams).

Source:  www.theatlantic.com


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