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Remembering Walter H. Crail - Philadelphia's Flying Photographer

Posted on Monday, March 1, 2021

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Photography Pioneer Walter Crail - 1924 The Evening Public Ledger

Walter Crail (1885-1924) was born in Ohio in 1885. While information on Crail's early life is sparse, Crail moved to Philadelphia around 1918 where he worked as a photographer for the Evening Public Ledger newspaper. While photojournalism as a profession dates to the 1850s, technical limitations made photography in newspapers quite rare until the 1920s. As the medium began to grow in importance and newspapers across America began hiring photographers, Crail was an early icon in his new field of visual storytelling.

The Flying Newspaperman

Crail made a name for himself in part due to his willingness to do whatever it took to get the perfect shot to tell his story. Crail's photographs were often secured by climbing tall ladders, hanging from ropes and even taking to the sky in an airplane.

In 1918, Crail took the first action photographs of a sporting event in the City of Philadelphia when he photographed the Tendler-Cline fight at Philadelphia's Shibe Park. Clinging to a tall stepladder that he set up to the left side of the ring, Crail was able to capture amazing photographs of the fight, which can be seen below as these images appeared in the July 17, 1918 edition of the Evening Public Ledger.

First Sports Action Photographs in Philadelphia - 1918 Evening Public Ledger

In 1919, Hikoichi Fookay, special corespondent for the Osaka Mainichi newspaper in Japan, arrived in Philadelphia to cover the first International Labor Conference. Before continuing to Washington D.C., Fookay visited the Public Ledger Building in Philadelphia and was given a tour of the newspaper's operations. After his tour, it seemed as though what had interested Fookay most were Crail's photographs that he was shown as Crail hung from a wire high in the sky above Philadelphia's City Hall Plaza. Fookay said the following of Crail's acrobatics:

"Our photographers would stop princes and kings for a picture, and that is a very daring thing to do in Japan, but I know of no one in Japan who would dare so much as this photographer does for even such a beloved paper as the Mainichi. I will take this picture home to Japan for inspiration to my photographers. Mr. Crail typifies your great enterprise."

Walter Crail sits perched upon the ledge of the Public Ledger Building while taking photos of Independence Hall - 1917 The Evening Public Ledger

In the October 25, 1920 newspaper edition, the Evening Public Ledger publicized what was then a rare asset for a newspaper, it's own Flying Newspapermen! The Evening Public Ledger Plane was flown by Captain Wallace Stryker, who was known as the "flying reporter" and staffed by Walter Crail the "flying photographer." Together, the "Flying Newspapermen" used their ability to take to the sky to give a unique angle to news stories.

Crail's photographs taken from the airplane were remarkable for their time. In his obituary, the Bulletin of Photography noted that Crail was "one of the first photographers to take airplane views." An aerial shot taken by Crail of Ebetts Field in Brooklyn, New York prior to the start of the 1920 World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians can be seen below.

Ebett's Field - 1920 World Series - The Evening Public Ledger

Crail also photographed prominent national events. When Warren G. Harding was sworn in as the 29th President of the United States on March 4, 1921, Crail was on hand to photograph the event. This panoramic shot of the inauguration showing the U.S. Capitol and Library of Congress was taken by Crail:

Inauguration of Warren G. Harding - 1921 The Evening Public LedgerWhile Crail was covering another national event, the funeral of former President Woodrow Wilson on February 6, 1924, he fell ill with pneumonia and died shortly afterwards on March 6, 1924. Crail was just 38 years old at the time of his death. Crail was buried in Mount Peace Cemetery in Philadelphia. At his grave, a headstone was erected by his coworkers and bears the inscription: "Erected by his Newspaper Associates."

Grave of Walter Crail - Mount Peace Cemetery - Photo Credit: JohnF FindAGrave.com

A Legacy Lost

Perhaps due to his untimely death, which occurred just as photojournalism and photography was experiencing greater acclaim as a field, Crail's legacy as pioneer in the history of photography has largely been lost to time. Besides some scans of old newspapers, few copies of Crain's photographs can be found today. Below is a photograph of a new crane installed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, one in a series of images that Crail took for the Evening Public Ledger in December of 1919; these photos seem to be the only photographs taken by Crail that can be easily found online.

Walter Crail - Philadelphia Navy Yard - 350-ton fitting-out crane - 1919 The Evening Public Ledger

But while few photographs taken by Crail can be found today, there are numerous photos that can be found of Crail himself. These images of a photographer doing anything to get a shot have captivated people for a more than a century. 

Walter Crail on the Public Ledger Building - 1917 - The Evening Public Ledger

Walter Crail on the Public Ledger Building - 1917 - The Evening Public Ledger

Walter Crail on the Public Ledger Building - 1917 - The Evening Public Ledger

Walter Crail on the Public Ledger Building - 1917 - The Evening Public Ledger

Walter Crail on the Public Ledger Building - 1924 - The Evening Public Ledger

Walter Crail - FindAGrave.com

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