Willis W. Vail

Published 6:03 pm Thursday, September 1, 2011

Who was Willis Vail? A Google search yielded no definitive biography, rather pieces of his life here and there on websites devoted to local geographic concerns and his alma mater, Swarthmore College.

Willis Willson Vail was born in Quakertown, New Jersey on February 14, 1868 to John Vail and Mary Willson. The modest wooden school building there has been preserved and bears a plaque in his honor. He later attended Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, graduating with a B.S. degree in Civil Engineering and specializing in surveying and railroad engineering in 1889.

After graduation, he became an accomplished photographer, which he used to document the progress of construction projects all over the United States. Vail was employed in work on the C. & O. and N. & W. Railroads from 1889-1894 as a surveyor, with F.A. Dunham and F.J. Hubbard, Civil Engineers, on town surveys and miscellaneous work from 1897-98, Assistant Engineer of the Central Railroad of N.J. from 1899-1901 and was Chief Engineer of the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1905.

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By 1913, Vail was again employed by the Norfolk and Western Railway as the Resident Engineer for a massive steel viaduct construction project near Farmville, known as High Bridge. For almost two years he resided at the construction site and periodically took photographs that documented the construction process and those who were associated with it.

Over 120 photographs were recorded on four-by-five inch glass negatives and placed in protective sleeves that were essentially the corners of correspondence envelopes trimmed to fit. On each was written a negative number, the date, time, weather, lens aperture and a brief description of the picture. The sleeves also provide informative clues. These views present fascinating insight into construction practices of a century ago.

Though he spent a good deal of his life away from Quakertown, Willis Vail remained active in his hometown's affairs by serving as a longtime member of the board of education and founder of the local Boy Scout Troop 108. He was married to Lelia Belle Gough. Vail died on August 4, 1951, which eerily, was 100 years to the day after the contract to construct the original High Bridge was signed by Francis Carr and Christian Ehrman (August 4, 1851.)

All the negatives for the photographs taken by Vail were later found in his Quakertown home in 1969 and were just recently offered for sale. The High Bridge Trail State Park will become the repository for over half of these original, unpublished views related to High Bridge and preserved for use in future exhibits and research purposes.