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The Fading Giant: Bygone Train Sights and Sounds

In the late 1950s, photographer O. Winston Link decided to document the end of an era -- capturing steam trains in pictures and sound recordings. Using an 80-pound tape recorder hooked up to a custom-built portable power supply, Link recorded on the trains themselves, and in the towns they passed through.

His assistant on some of those runs was Tom Garver, who is now curator of the O. Winston Link museum in Roanoke, Va.

Link, who died in 2001, "really wanted people to sense it all, so you could look at his photographs and listen to the sounds at the same time," Garver says.

A new CD, called The Fading Giant, captures the atmosphere of places like Green Cove, Va., which saw the Norfolk & Western Railway's "Virginia Creeper" pass through every day except Sunday, making its way through the mountains.

Then there's Husk, N.C., with Jimbo, who lived at the local general store. The "Hound of Husk" would "sing along" whenever he heard the steam whistle that signaled the "Creeper" was coming. "Jimbo sat on the front stoop of the general store and howled," Garver says. "Winston and I both loved it."

The following is an excerpt from the liner notes to The Fading Giant:

Not one in a million Americans ever again will ride a scheduled mainline passenger train behind a live and breathing steam locomotive. That time is gone. Remembrance of the unique, indefinable glow in such trips fades and disappears. It was a singular thrill, that steam train riding, a sense of high adventure wrapped in warm well-being. The start from the pulsing terminal, the travelers on other trains, the open country where the whistles made no distinction between thronged highways and farmers' lanes, the solid roar of a bridges beneath, and the always unexpected smash of tunnels with darkness all around and echoes banging upon echoes. And the little train stations: A long wailing engine call and the hiss of slowing to the local agent's platform domain. The start with its first uncertain puff, then the rhythmic power growing heavier and heavier, quicker and quicker and quicker until the car wheels ticked the rail joints into new, strange lands.

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As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.