Va. museum features noted photographer
By Christine Miller Ford
For the Chronicle
Images from West Virginia can be found in “Life Along the Line: Railroad Photography by O. Winston Link,” a new exhibit at The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester.
The $20 million museum has been a showcase for the history and culture of the Shenandoah Valley in both Virginia and West Virginia since it opened three years ago, and the Link exhibit highlights famous images created in both states.
“Life Along the Line” will be on view in the museum’s Changing Exhibitions Gallery through Aug. 2.
The exhibit includes “Hotshot Eastbound at the Iaeger Drive-In,” a photo that Link took in 1956 in McDowell County in southern West Virginia. Today it is usually described as the most famous of the shots composed by Link in the late 1950s as the age of the steam locomotives was coming to an end.
Link took “Hotshot” at the Iaeger drive-in the night of Aug. 2, 1956, when the Korean War film “Battle Taxi” was being shown. Link’s carefully composed photo, shot with more than 40 of his giant No. 2 flashbulbs, captures a couple in a convertible as a steam Norfolk & Western Railway locomotive passes the drive-in just as an airplane zooms on screen.
Less well known are Link’s family ties to West Virginia. His father, Albert, was born in Duffields and later moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where Winston was born in 1914. Many of Link’s relatives still live in the Eastern Panhandle and generations of the family are buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, where the famous artist was laid to rest in 2001.
Trained as a civil engineer but interested in photography since his youth, Link’s first professional job was as a photographer for a New York public relations firm.
After World War II, Link switched to freelance work, often shooting complicated industrial scenes for companies such as Texaco and B.F. Goodrich. In January of 1955, he was assigned to shoot photos in a Staunton, Va., factory that made window air conditioners. Interested in steam railroads for years, he took time to visit the Norfolk & Western Railway, which passed nearby in Waynesboro.
“He knew the Norfolk & Western Railway was the last large American railroad to operate exclusively with steam power, so he went over to watch,” notes a biography in the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, the entity that offered to loan the Link photos to The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.
Soon after, Link sought permission from the railroad’s public relations department to chronicle life along the rails. Although the railway didn’t provide financial backing for the project, company officials were supportive of the work. Link would spend the next five years taking more than 2,000 photos of people and locomotives.
The self-financed project not only was technically complex, but also a race against time. As he worked, the Norfolk & Western was converting section after section of its line to diesel engines.
The exhibit at The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley also includes another bit of West Virginia history in the form of a small-scale replica of a Shay locomotive.
George W. Giles, who worked in the early 1920s as a machinist in the boiler room of the Cherry River Boom and Lumber Co. in Richwood, moved to Winchester in 1936 and eventually opened his own machine shop.
When he retired in the 1970s, Giles relied on his memory to painstakingly recreate a Shay using steel, cast iron, copper and brass. Giles died in 1979, but his siblings offered the Winchester museum the opportunity to put the piece on display.
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“Life Along the Line: Railroad Photography by O. Winston Link” is included in the price of admission at The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley at 901 Amherst St., Winchester, Va.
For details, go online to or call the museum at (540) 662-1473.