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Travel: Roanoke’s O. Winston Link Museum Chronicles the End of America’s Steam Engines

(Photo courtesy O. Winston Link Museum, Roanoke, Virginia)  

   Once you see one of his photographs, you never forget it. Inky darkness is frosted and silvered by pools of light. People and places, most in small towns in rural Virginia, are frozen in the moment. And always, dominating the scene in sometimes startling ways, is the presence of a massive engine, billowing a plume of smoke and steam.

    O. Winston Link was born in Brooklyn, New York, 1914 and like most boys of his time, he had a fascination for the big steam engines that roared down the tracks through small towns and big cities across the United States.  But it wasn’t until after World War II that he found an outlet for that fascination. While on an industrial photography assignment in Staunton, Virginia, Link traveled to Waynesboro to take photos of the Norfolk & Western Railway steam engines, the only railroad still running steam engines at that time. For the next five years he would spend more than $25,000 of his own money and countless hours photographing the trains and the people who worked and relied on them.
    Today, the exhibit at the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia perfectly illustrates the power of Link’s single-minded devotion to chronicling the last of the giants.

    When you see the photos, most taken at night and almost all done in black and white, they at first look like moments of photographic good fortune; being in the right place at the right moment to capture a tableau of ordinary life in the mid-1950s. Light casts strange and eerie shadows on the gigantic engines as well as across the land, houses and people in the photos.

    But Link, who studied engineering before going on to become a professional photographer after World War II, and who was a skilled craftsman in his own right, was more than just a man with a camera. Nothing in his photographs was left to chance. He captured larger images by rigging a line of cameras to fire at exactly the same moment and then stitching together the photos.The people were placed, the composition worked out as elaborately as the lighting that illuminated the scene.

    "You can't move the sun, and you can't move the tracks, so you have to do something else to better light the engines," Link said. He chose to take his photographs at night and controlled every aspect of the photos. Through his lens and his genius with lighting, wiring dozens of bulbs to fire at exactly the right moment, replacing lanterns in the hands of railroad men even lamps in nearby homes, he conjured exactly what he wanted to see. And, ultimately, what he wanted us to see.

    When the last steam engine ran in 1960, Link photographed it from behind a couple standing on the front porch of their home. It was the end of an era and the end of his project.

    At the time no one was interested in photos of steam engines. That was yesterday’s technology. Photos, when he could sell one, went for next to nothing. He did better selling high-quality recordings of steam engines and whistles and it wasn’t until the 1980s that Link got the recognition he deserved.

    Today, strolling through the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, next to the Virginia Museum of Transportation, studying the images he produced you are drawn into the scene, compelled to look closer for the tiniest details of the composition.

    Link painted with light on photographic paper creating stark, indelible, dramatic images of mechanical dinosaurs rolling and belching clouds of steam on their way to extinction. To stand and look at his work is like being taken along on that historic ride.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com


Travel: Black Dog Salvage on DIY Network

(Robert Kulp, co-owner of Salvage Dogs, is one of DIY Network's latest reality stars. Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)   


   While traveling through Southwest Virginia recently, I stopped by Black Dog Salvage in Roanoke. I’d read about the architectural salvage and design company in Garden and Gun Magazine’s profile of the Roanoke area and I knew I couldn’t get that close without stopping by.

    Black Dog owners Mike Whiteside and Robert Kulp have filled a rambling 40,000 sq.ft. Roanoke warehouse on the edge of the hip Grandin Village with a treasure trove of interesting architectural pieces, antiques and one-of-a-kind designs made onsite in their wood and metalwork shops. Select dealers occupy one end of the building and regularly bring in antiques and collectibles to fill their spaces.

    The minute I walked in the place I knew there was no way I’d be able to take it all in with a quick visit. Most of what caught my eye was too big to bring home ( but I need that 10-foot MAZAWATTEE TEA sign!) so I spent almost an hour walking through taking photos with my iPhone thinking I could follow up online.

    While I was there I met Sally, the laid back black Labrador retriever who is the business namesake and talked to Kulp who told me Black Dog Salvage will be the focus of Salvage Dogs, a new DIY Network reality show.  Beginning early next month, cameras will follow Whiteside and Kulp as they explore and dismantle old buildings and find new ways to use old objects. In the first episode the pair will salvage an 1890’s farmhouse that served as both post office and school house.

    I loved Roanoke and I’m already scheming to get back. And next time I’ll set aside a full day for shopping at Black Dog. But, until then, at least I can follow the action on DIY’s Salvage Dogs.
Salvage Dawgs is set to air on the DIY Network, Thursday, Nov. 8 at 11pm EST. and again Friday, Nov. 9 at 9pm EST. Check your local provider for updated information.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Video: Erin Bolster, Tonk wow crowd on The Late Show with David Letterman

Watch the video clip of Erin Bolster and Tonk on Late Night with David Letterman. The full segment will be broadcast tonight on CBS:

Fans of heroes, horses, wranglers and grizzly bears will get it all in one package tonight on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Trail riding guide Erin Bolster and her horse from Whitefish, Mont., are being featured on the CBS talk show after a Sept. 18 Spokesman-Review feature trotted the duo into the national spotlight.

“How can you not love this story?” Letterman says as he introduces Bolster in a show taped earlier today. The host praised the 25-year-old wrangler who leveraged her own bravery as she convinced the horse to save a child by charging a grizzly bear head on.

Bolster had been acquainted with the leased horse from the Swan Mountain Outfitters stock pool for only two months.

“Our first guest showed remarkable courage when she and her horse, Tonk, rescued a young boy from a 750-pound grizzly bear – 750 pound grizzly bear: that’s like (all the people in) Row 2,” Letterman says, pointing to the audience.

In the interview, Bolster says Tonk initially “didn’t want to be there” when the grizzly ran into her group of eight trail riders.

The bear was chasing a deer. But when the deer escaped in the pandemonium of panicking horses, the grizzly continued its pursuit – bearing down on a fleeing horse carrying Ian Turner, an 8-year-old guest from northern California.

Horse experts have marveled at Bolster’s ability to get Tonk to overcome his natural instinct to run away from the danger. With Bolster’s heels in his ribs, the large Percheron (draft horse) mix, wheeled around and charged the bear three times before driving it away from the boy and the other horse.

“Erin was just awesome,” said Greg Turner, the boy’s father. “I can't say enough good things about her.”

Tonk reacts similarly when Letterman introduces him to the nation on tonight's show. That is, when the studio audience roars with applause, Tonk initially wants to head for the barn.

“Must be a bear on 53rd Street,” Letterman says as the huge white horse pivots and moons the crowd.

But Bolster composes the horse, holds his head tight to her shoulder and confirms that she bought Tonk after his heroic performance against the bear.

“He’s my boy now,” she says, to the crowd’s approval.

“Lovely story,” Letterman says. “And take good care of this guy.”

“Wow. That was awesome,” Bolster said in a Facebook post after taping the show this afternoon. “Tonk tried his very hardest to be a good boy. He was so cute… love him.”

Dad praises wrangler who saved son from grizzly

Ian Turner, 8, of northern California is pictured here on a horse named Scout on July 30, 2011, shortly before they were chased by a grizzly bear on a trail ride with Swan Mountain Outfitters near Glacier National Park. Wrangler Erin Bolster and her horse, Tonk, rode to his rescue, challenging the bear until it ran off. 

Here's what Ian's dad has to say, as posted on the Swan Mountain Outfitters Facebook page:

My name is Greg. My son Ian is the unnamed 8 year old. Erin was just awesome. I can't say enough good things about her. Even aside from her chasing down Ian and Scout, you could not do better by having Erin as your guide. Although, could someone tell Scout not to be chasing bears? :-). Thank you again Erin, you are awesome. Someone was watching out for us all that day.

Gutsy wrangler and horse that took on grizzly taping Letterman Show

GREAT STORIES — If you like heroes, horses, blonde horse wranglers and grizzly bears, tune in to the Late Show with David Letterman tonight.

My Outdoors feature story last month, "Gutsy wrangler, huge horse, save boy from charging grizzly" struck a chord with Spokesman-Review readers –and then spread to readers across the continent like jet-propelled stallions.

The news didn't escape Letterman, who owns a Montana ranch near Choteau. Letterman's handlers shipped both the wrangler and the horse from Whitefish to New York. Tonk was chauffeured on a five-day expedition in a comfort-controlled van with breaks every three hours or so.

The 25-year-old wrangler and her horse are scheduled to be taping two segments today for the show that airs tonight. Bolster and her huge Percheron mix horse will be sharing the show with actor Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller's Day Off).   

The story of Erin Bolster and Tonk riding herd on a grizzly bear near Glacier National Park went viral on the Internet, capturing the hearts of a country with an appetite for heroes, horses and potential tragedies with happy endings – for both the people and the bear.

The family of the 8-year-old California boy Erin rescued from the bear posted high praise for the Virginia-born wrangler on the Swan Mountain Outfitters Facebook page:

My name is Greg (Turner). My son Ian is the unnamed 8 year old. Erin was just awesome. I can't say enough good things about her. Even aside from her chasing down Ian and Scout, you could not do better by having Erin as your guide. Although, could someone tell Scout not to be chasing bears? :-). Thank you again Erin, you are awesome. Someone was watching out for us all that day.

Nearly 100,000 people a day were viewing the story on The Spokesman-Review site alone in the few days after it was published after Google added the link to its News Spotlight list. Now the story has all over North America and readership is in the millions.

Click here for the follow up story after her appearance with Letterman.

Notes from previous blog posts:

"It’s been crazy," said Bolster from her home in Whitefish, Mont., noting that she’s been interviewed by numerous publications, TV and radio since the S-R story went wild.

She’s also received marriage proposals, job offers and made a lot of new Facebook friends.

She’s set up an account for the many people who’ve offered to chip in for Tonk’s winter boarding, since there’s no bigger hero in this story than the burly white Percheron mix. I've attached it to my Sunday story.

At first, she said she was going out and giving Tonk a carrot every time something new and good came back as more people read the story.

But at the rate it's been going, Tonk was goingto get fat and the pasture was going to be full of orange muffins if she didn't scale back.