On a Saturday in February 1919 when the whole forest from near Colac, Victoria, to the sea was burned, he was successful in saving the lives of the passengers and his train from certain destruction.
A proposal has been put to the Old Beechy Rail Trail Committee to restore Mr. Wills' grave, albeit only simply, and approval has been received to contact various local bodies to assist in the restoration program.Link to Old Beechy Rail Trail
When complete, it would be nice to make it known to railway enthusiests who may wish to visit and pay their respects to a man who saved people lives during the Otway fires of 1919.
It is believed that his locomotive is still operational in the possession of Puffing Billy Group at Belgrave, a Melbourne suburb.
William Thomas WILLS was born in 1869. He died on 13 Feb 1963 in Colac, Vic. He was buried on 15 Feb 1963 in Colac, Vic cemetary in the Presbeterian Section 13, Lot 31..
William married Ada Ann READ in 1894 in Vaughan, Vic. or Pigoreet - Registration no 492.. Ada was born in 1872. She died on 18 Feb 1914. She was buried in Colac, Vic cemetary in the Presbeterian Section 13, Lot 31..
Full details of the known details for William's family can be found here.
The "Beechy" engine driver, who saved his train by backing it four miles up the steep gradient from Devitt's Siding to Beech Forest, when faced with the raging 1919 fire which swept from the plains to the coast was buried in Colac cemetery on 15 February 1963.
He was William Wills, known affectionately to all the folk of that period living on the Ridge as "Whistling Willie", because he never failed to sound the whistle when his train approached a level crossing or before rounding the sharp curves.
With the view obscured it was necessary to warn repair men who might be working on the line. It was said that the people waiting for the train always knew when he was driving it by the constant sounding of the locomotives whistle.
The late Mr. Wills died at the ripe old age of 94 years in Geelong to which city he had moved for his retirement after driving the "Beechy Puffing Billy" for many years during the heyday of this railway line when four trains ran each way daily. For his feat in saving the train from the 1919 fire all he received from the Railway Commissioners was the honor of having his name entered in the good conduct book.
Here is how Mr. F. Alford, a farmer at Barongarook east, at that time a worker on "Beechy" line, narrates the saga of how the late Driver
"On a Saturday in February 1919 when the whole forest from near Colac to the sea coast was burned, Driver Wills was on the "Beechy" returning to Colac. when he met the fire at what was then known as Devitt's Siding, where four, rail trucks, loaded with green sawn timber were blazing like a furnace.
Realising the folly of proceeding further, he decided to try and push the train back-wards up the I in 30 grade to Beech Forest with a load far heavier than normally was hauled up this gradient. In the extreme heat and dense smoke, he was successful in saving the lives of the passengers and the train from certain destruction.
At the time this was considered a remarkable effort.The burned-out sections of the line were repaired sufficiently the next day, Sunday, for the train to make its trip to Colac where it arrived just twenty-four hours late.'