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Who was the High Bridge Watchman Uncle John?

High Bridge Trail State Park is pleased to announce a newly acquired photo to its collection of historic images. The view is from a series of images detailing construction of the steel viaduct and originally taken by the resident survey engineer, Willis W. Vail, on April 10, 1914. The image is from a glass negative-  #1794 and bears the simple inscription - "Uncle John" the Bridge Watchman on duty.

"Uncle John" Redd the bridge watchman in 1914.

"Uncle John" the Bridge Watchman on duty...from a photo by Willis W. Vail and taken 4 p.m. April 10, 1914.

The picture was sent electronically as a digital image by Jim Gill, of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The original negative is in the possession of a collector in California who shared it with Gill, who was then kind enough to send it to the Park's Education Specialist, Bob Flippen, for inclusion in the park's collection.

Upon close examination, one can see the pocket watch in his top pocket, a cord leading out to a makeshift fob at the top flap of his overalls, the weave of his sweater, the holes in his knees and felt hat, even the wrinkles of skin in his weathered hands. Just below his right hand on hip is a light area that represents the recent fill dirt for the new abutment on the east end of High Bridge.

In commemoration of Black History month, the park submitted the photo for publication in The Farmville Herald. Community input was requested to help identify the subject known as "Uncle John" and ideally, some biographical information about him.

On February 22nd, Urscille Hamlin, of the Rice vicinity in Prince Edward County, went to her mailbox and removed a folded newspaper displaying the likeness of who was her great uncle - John Redd. She was so excited that her first attempt to call the Herald office resulted in a wrong number. Once she got through, I took the call and made an appointment to see her that afternoon.

The initial interview revealed that John and a brother named Homer, were born into slavery as Winfields, but later sold to the Redd family taking that name. Homer had two children and John had nine. John worked for the N. & W. Railway as the bridge watchman. She did not know his birth or death dates, but had the same picture which was made into a real photo postcard of the time period and passed down through the family. We later drove a few miles away to his resting place, a fenced-wire family plot at Starhope Church near Sailor's Creek.

A page from the Redd family bible.

A page from the Family Bible revealed the death dates for John Redd (April 10, 1938) and his wife, Malenda (March 3, 1930.)

A second interview was arranged with Herald Editor, Ken Woodley, for the following week. In the meantime Urscille contacted family and friends in an attempt to learn anything new as she was born the year before John's passing and didn't remember him. Living relatives could provide little information, but a family Bible revealed John's death date as April 10, 1938 which was 24 years to the day after the bridge picture! The Bible also revealed his wife Malenda's death date as March 3, 1930. This information along with Urscille Hamlin's thoughts and emotions became front page news in the March 2, 2012 issue of The Farmville Herald.

The burial enclosure for John Redd had become overgrown with saplings and fallen leaves. There are no marked tombstones, rather field rocks marking the head and feet of 6-8 unidentified graves. Urscille Hamlin told me that at 75 years of age, she was no longer able to maintain the plot. I mentioned this in a conversation to Dr. James W. Jordan, an Anthropology Professor at Longwood University and retired Naturalist for Holliday Lake State Park after he related to me one of his classes' interest in the John Redd picture. After some discussion with his students, several volunteered to help clean up the Redd family plot.

Longwood University Lambda Alpha Anthropology Honor Society students and members of the Primitive Technologies Club clean up the Redd Family plot at Starhope Church.

Longwood University Lambda Alpha Anthropology Honor Society students and members of the Primitive Technologies Club clean up the Redd Family plot at Starhope Church.

March 1st was a beautiful sunny day as seven members of Longwood University's Lambda Alpha Anthropology Honor Society and the Primitive Technologies Club boarded a University bus, armed with shovels and rakes and determination to do a good deed. I managed to accompany them as Dr. Jordan drove the bus to Starhope Church. With so many to help, it took maybe an hour to clean up the family plot. Urscille Hamlin stopped by to see the progress and shared with the students, the Bible, postcard and information compiled at a family reunion in 2003. Upon our return, we regaled ourselves with a well-deserved dinner at Perini Pizza in Farmville.

Dr. Jordan and Longwood University students.

Dr. James W. Jordan, Andrew Bradshaw, Alyssa Foley, Russell Reed, Urscille Hamlin, Molly Trivelpiece, Morgan Cloud, Allison Ferrell and Matthew Paxton.

High Bridge Trail State Park is a rails to trails conversion ideally suited for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding.  The park may be contacted at 434-315-0457 or by email

High Bridge Trail is about 31 miles long and runs through Cumberland, Nottoway and Prince Edward counties and the towns of Burkeville, Farmville, Pamplin City, Prospect and Rice.

Entrances - Parking availability:

  • Rice's Depot Road, 1/4-mile off U.S. 460 at Rice, near trail milepost 142
  • River Road, three miles off N. Main St. in Farmville, near trail milepost 146
  • Osborne Road, 1/4-mile off N. Main St. in Farmville, near trail milepost 149
  • Municipal lots in Farmville where the trail intersects with Main St. near trail milepost 150
  • Tuggle Road, off U.S. 460 and near U.S. 15 North, near trail milepost 156
  • Prospect Road, off U.S. 460 at Prospect, near trail milepost 161
  • Elam, off U.S. 460 at Sulpher Spring Rd., near trail milepost 164
  • Heights School Rd., of U.S. Business 460 near Pamplin, near trail milepost 168

Published: 03/09/2012

My, what an amazing and interesting historical happening. Who said history was dead?! ron
- Ronald Card, 03/15/2012


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