Photographer O. Winston Link may best be known for his ties to Virginia, home of the O. Winston Link Museum at Roanoke, but museum manager Lynsey Allie says his ties to West Virginia are strong, though fewer people know of them.
“O. Winston Link has fans all over the world,” Allie says. “They come here, of course, but many of the visitors we see also seek out every Link-related site they can find. They just can’t get enough.”
Link, who trained as a civil engineer before moving into photography, is credited with capturing the charm of rural life in the 1950s along with the final days of steam trains in the Northeast.
He created some of his best-known works in southern West Virginia, painstakingly capturing a night scene of trains speeding past a swimming pool and a drive-in movie theater in McDowell County.
It only makes sense for the Eastern Panhandle to play up its ties, says Allie, who heads the 17-year-old museum housed in a renovated Norfolk & Western Railway depot.
Link, who died in 2001, is buried in Shepherdstown’s Elmwood Cemetery alongside his parents and other kin.
His father grew up in an all-but-forgotten hamlet of Duffields, halfway between Shepherdstown and Charles Town, and Allie said it's likely that E. Albert Link developed an interest in trains there as a child and passed the spark along to his son later when the family was living in New York City.
Born in Brooklyn in 1914, O. Winston Link began the project that brought him worldwide acclaim in early 1955. His work as a commercial photographer in New York took him to Staunton, Virginia, for a shoot at a factory making window air conditioners.
There, Link got sidetracked. He loved to watch nighttime trains, and when he visited nearby Waynesboro, Virginia, to see Norfolk & Western trains, he learned the age of the coal-fired steam locomotives would soon end.
He quickly decided on an ambitious, self-financed project—photographing the final years before the N&W steam locomotive gave way to diesel engines. By the time the last train was taken out of service in the spring of 1960, he had carefully crafted more than 2,400 scenes.
Mostly shooting after dark when he could control the lighting and in black-and-white, which was more affordable than color film, Link made multiple trips all over Virginia and parts of West Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina to scout out locations and set up his complex synchronized flash system.
The project didn’t initially connect with the public, but the works drew attention after a Museum of Modern Art show in New York in 1976 and an exhibition of his work in London in 1983. Collectors were soon clamoring for his incredible portraits.
“Hotshot” is considered a perfect example of Link’s technical skills and eye for composition. It shows a young man and woman in a convertible watching the Korean War epic “Battle Taxi” as a steam locomotive passes and as a jet fighter zooms across the screen.
The Baltimore & Ohio depot that Albert Link knew as a child still stands just off Flowing Springs Road in Duffields.
Privately constructed in 1839 by landowner Richard Duffields, the building is the Baltimore & Ohio’s second-oldest surviving depot. It’s nine years younger than the station near Baltimore in Ellicott City, Maryland, a building that’s now a museum.
In Albert Link’s day, the stop would have been the village hub—where farmers sent goods to market and picked up their mail, where passengers arrived and departed, where telegrams were sent and received, and, later, where the only payphone within miles was to be found.
But during Albert Link’s early childhood, the historic Duffields Depot was abandoned when the B&O constructed its own modern depot, a Victorian building that stood until 1942.
Since 1986, commuters heading to work in Washington, D.C., have caught the Maryland Transit Administration's MARC train from a platform called "Duffields."
The original limestone structure, sitting empty since 1884, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Jefferson County Historical Landmarks Commission has won preliminary grants to stabilize the building with an eye to someday transforming the building into a museum.
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