By the late 1950s, steam engines in this country were careening along the tracks for their last runs. Automobiles and planes had overhauled the way Americans traveled, and the train industry had been transitioning from steam engines to diesel going back to the 1930s. Most of the steam engines still operating were part of the Norfolk and Western Railway, headquartered in Roanoke, with routes that ran through America’s Coal Country — Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, among them. In fact, the N&W had been carrying coal for so long that the railway executives were pained to put trains running on coal out of commission.

Still, the train industry had foreseen its fate, and no one could save the steam engines. But there was one man who could keep them from vanishing.

The publication this month of “Life Along the Line: A Photographic Portrait of America’s Last Great Steam Railroad” (Abrams) by O. Winston Link, which coincides with a new exhibition at the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, offers jubilant cause to celebrate the mechanical majesty of these trains — and the landscape they left behind.

Coming 11 years after his death, this volume makes a strong case for Link being the most important documentarian ever of the railroads. His particular genius was that he could make trains come so fully to life in print that the pages practically rattle from the locomotion.

Link was born in 1914 in Brooklyn, where his mother and father had relocated after growing up in Virginia and West Virginia, respectively. As a teenager, Link got a hands-on education with photography when he landed a job printing pictures at a drugstore. Later, at what was then called the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, he shot for the school newspaper. Upon graduation, he landed a position as a photographer for a large PR firm in New York. (Due to partial deafness, he would be kept out of military service.) Early on, Link favored conceptual, elaborately staged shoots, and for the next five years, he honed his craft.

Photo by O. Winston Link taken near Gilbert, West Virginia in 1960. (Copyright Conway Link; courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum)

In 1942 he married model Marteal Oglesby from Louisiana; the marriage resulted in a son, Conway, but fell apart soon after. Marteal and Conway returned to Louisiana. Conway saw little of his father — or so the boy thought. He was unaware that Link returned to Louisiana on occasion, showing up at his son’s school, camera in hand. Or he’d stay with the family of one of Conway’s friends, Fritz Williams, posing as an uncle so he could get up-close glimpses of Conway during play dates.

Link set out on his own as a freelancer, racking up clients such as Alcoa and Texaco. In 1955, he was on assignment for Westinghouse in Staunton, Va., and took a quick drive for a gander at the N&W station in Waynesboro. Link, already a long admirer of trains, had been tipped off that the N&W was running some of the last steam locomotives. Still, he couldn’t have been prepared for the impact the depot would have on him.

He felt the sensation of walking onto a movie set preserved from the 1930s. Here was a telegraph machine, a clerk’s eyeshade hanging off a clipboard, a bare light bulb hovering over a desk of train schedules. Link came back the next night with his Graphic camera, but the real flash of light that went off was in his head. He soon decided to document the last days of steam engines. The railroad happily gave him total access, and he learned the ins and outs of the line, familiarizing himself with its destinations. What he couldn’t have known was where, in the end, the project would take him.

Link concentrated his efforts along the routes in Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. And he preferred shooting the trains at night. He knew that the smoke from a train’s smokestack produced more dramatic results against the black sky. And he could control the lighting; in fact, over the course of the five-year project he became a pioneer in night-shooting techniques. He devised flash reflectors that relied on up to 18 bulbs and invented a battery-capacitor power supply (on some shoots, he had 4,000 feet of wire snaking around him).

Link favored a view camera that he set on a tripod and ducked under the cover to operate. He was meticulous in setting up his shots, which could take hours or days. The N&W let him communicate directly with the engineers from phone boxes so he could ask them to adjust their speed, depending on what he had in mind. This let him orchestrate and shoot a single moment like a director.

In a 1957 picture from Max Meadows, Va., Mr. and Mrs. B.F. Pope stand shoulder to shoulder on their porch, their obedient dog by their side, just as a train headed for Roanoke passes by. For this shoot he devised custom-made reflectors to accommodate the porch and the particular lighting challenges. The feeling he evokes is as if the Popes had had the train over for dinner, and now, as polite hosts, they’ve come out to see it pull out of the driveway and into the night.

In other pictures, viewers have to carefully scan to find the train at all. In the celebrated “Hotshot Eastbound, Iaeger, West Virginia, 1956,” we look over the shoulders of two sweethearts, Willie Allen and Dorothy Christian, in a Buick convertible, at a drive-in movie. In the near distance, a train goes streaming in the opposite direction of the cars, underscoring its own narrative: heading in the reverse direction of modernity. (On-screen, we see an airplane, but Link pasted that in later, to further make his point.)

Link liked fitting other modes of transportation into the frame when he could. In one picture from Damascus, Va., the steam engine appears to be racing a Tennessee Coach bus — and beating it. In Green Cove, Va., Link set up his camera at a horse-drawn carriage, and just as the train eases around the bend, Old Maude bows solemnly, as if to acknowledge that her time has come; the train is her successor.

In Link’s pictures, the smoke appears as a range of characters. In some it’s a fierce, fiery projectile to the heavens or faint as a whisper. Other times, the smoke takes the shape of a mushroom cloud — the phantom fear of the times. On some occasions, the smoke gathers like evening fog.

Link’s pictures documented change, but in these parts of Appalachia and the South, he’d found an America that looked untouched since Walker Evans had roamed the grim landscape of the Great Depression. We see switch operators in suspenders, an egg stove in a general store (the Coca-Cola ad on the far wall says, “Talk about Good,”), children fishing off a bridge, men in denim overalls and clutching pipes.

Link’s pictures exude the lonely romance and haunted quality of Edward Hopper’s paintings: Shadows abound, and men in coats and hats stare off into the distance, often alone. In Link’s pictures, we always know it’s the trains they’re waiting for. But what would come after? What was life after coal and steam engines going to look like? Link’s pictures are overall more sentimental than Hopper’s world, though, and as Norman Rockwell’s paintings do, they celebrate — and romance — the very essence of Americanism.

In 1960, the last steam engine was pulled from the rails, and Link, nearly 2,500 pictures into the self-financed project, packed up. He had published some pictures in train magazines, but the project attracted little attention otherwise.

Link resumed his commercial work and soon took up another self-financed project, chronicling the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connected Brooklyn and Staten Island. He had also acquired a steam engine and railcar, which he spent considerable time restoring. But over the years Link grew embittered that his N&W work had gone largely unappreciated, that it had faded from view like the very trains he had loved so deeply.

As Tony Reevy, a train historian and poet in North Carolina, makes clear in his insightful essay, Link’s pictures finally began to attract some critical attention by the 1980s. Part of the reason the art world took so long to take Link’s work seriously was simply nostalgia: The time of steam trains was now distant enough that society could better appreciate an era marked by fedoras and train engineers streaked with coal, leaning out the window, and lanterns appearing in the night like specters.

And photographs were simply slower to get the same level of artistic recognition as paintings. Street photography, of the kind furthered by W. Eugene Smith and Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank, had been quicker to come into vogue, with its grittier qualities and subtle commentary on social issues. Whereas the formal work that Link had done was originally seen as quainter, even old-fashioned.

Link sold five photographs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976 (and gifted a sixth) and in 1983 was the subject of two major exhibits, in London and Akron, Ohio. His first book, “Steam, Steel & Stars: America’s Last Steam Railroad,” came out in 1987. But by then bad luck had him like a freight train.

In 1983, at 73, Link married Conchita Mendoza, who was 48 and eventually set out to separate him from anyone he was close to. That included his son, Conway, whom he had grown close to later in life. She would also tell Link’s art-world associates that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. All the while she was having an affair with Ed Hayes, whose shop was refurbishing Link’s locomotive. She was also stealing most of the proceeds from his pictures; when Link came to understand what was happening, he sued for divorce. She and Hayes, who had been in on the scheme, went to jail — Mendoza for five years. A stash of 1,400 prints that had gone missing were found after her conviction. When she got out, she and Hayes were caught stealing his work yet again, and she was sent back to prison.

Link’s life didn’t end on the sad note it might have, though. He went on to publish another book of his train pictures in 1995, and in Roanoke, the idea of a museum honoring those remarkable five years began to materialize. Link died before the museum opened in 2004 in the historic Norfolk & Western Passenger Station, but he had been involved in its planning, and he realized that his work was finally getting its due. Perhaps the photographs hadn’t ushered in everything he had hoped, but there was permanence now to his sublime, sweeping vision. The steam engines weren’t bisecting country roads and roaring past swimming holes anymore, but they were running again in our consciousness.

Life Along the Line

“New Selections from the O. Winston Link Museum Archives,” at the O. Winston Link Museum, in Roanoke, opens Nov. 9 and runs through Feb. 11.