George Brooke Roberts
George Brooke Roberts, from
Distinguished Railroad Men of America
(January 15, 1833 - January
30, 1897) was a civil engineer and the 5th president of the
Pencoyd, his family's ancestral farm in Bala Cynwyd,
Pennsylvania, Roberts graduated from Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute in 1849, and taught there for 2 years before
becoming a rodman for the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR).
1852 he worked for the Philadelphia & Erie
, returning to the PRR in 1862 as assistant to the
president, J. Edgar Thomson
. Roberts oversaw the
construction of bridges and other engineering work, including the
Connecting Bridge over Schuylkill River in Philadelphia (John A. Wilson
, 1866-67) for a PRR
subsidiary. He became a PRR vice-president in 1869, and succeeded
Thomas A. Scott
as PRR president in 1880.
Broad Street Station
Roberts's tenure the PRR completed Broad Street
Station in Philadelphia, a seminal event in the city's history.
this, PRR locomotives did not cross the Schuylkill River into Center
City, but deposited passengers at West Philadelphia
Station (32nd Street).
Construction of a bridge and a
10-block viaduct between the river and Broad Street—the "Chinese Wall
" -- carried the PRR
tracks 2 stories above street level and into the Wilson Brothers
station. With the 1871 decision to build
Philadelphia's City Hall at Broad & Market Streets and the 1881 opening
of the PRR station, the center of Philadelphia's business district
rapidly moved westward.
The station's location at the heart
of the city made commuting via the PRR practical, fueling suburban
growth (especially on the Main
). A dozen years later, the PRR hired Frank Furness
to greatly expand Broad Street
Station, turning it into the largest station building in the
Roberts's ancestors had been among the founders of Pennsylvania.
The first emigrant, John Roberts, bought a 1,100-acre parcel along
the Schuylkill River in 1682, and built a house 2 years later that
he named "Pencoyd". This was part of the "Welsh Barony", a
40,000-acre tract bought by Welsh investors from William Penn. The "Welsh Barony" made up much
of the Philadelphia suburban region now known as the Main Line, named for the PRR line
Pennsylvania) that ran through it.
Roberts was the 6th proprietor of Pencoyd, and proud of his Welsh
heritage. He chose Welsh names for some of the suburban PRR
stations, including Bala and Cynwyd.
hired Frank Furness to expand the
family house at Pencoyd, and in 1890 the architect designed the
PRR's second Bryn Mawr Hotel (now the Baldwin School). Theophilus Parsons Chandler,
designed St. Asaph's Church, at the southern end of
Roberts's farm. Author Nathaniel Burt quipped: "The Church of St.
Asaph, dedicated, as the saying goes, to the Glory of God and the
convenience of the Roberts family."
In 1868, Roberts married Sarah Brinton, who died the following year
after giving birth to George Brinton Roberts. In 1874, he married
Miriam Pyle Williams, and the couple had 5 children: Algernon
Brooke Roberts, T. Williams Roberts, Elizabeth Williams Roberts
(married Percy H. Clark), Isaac Warner Roberts, and Miriam Williams
Roberts (married Spencer Ervin). Miriam died in 1913.
T. Williams Roberts became the 7th proprietor of Pencoyd, removed
all the Frank Furness
the house, and lived there until his death in 1962. Pencoyd was
sold, and demolished by developers in 1964. Office buildings and a
Saks Fifth Avenue
now occupy the City Avenue
The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of
Lower Merion from Lower Merion Historical Society.
General Map of the Pennsylvania
Railroad and Its Connections
Brooke Roberts's first major accomplishment as PRR president was
the 1881 purchase of a majority stake in the Philadelphia,
Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad, providing a direct PRR
line from New York City (actually Jersey City, New
Jersey, until 1911) to Washington, DC. Amtrak
PRR routes are outlined in black.
uses this same
Competition between the PRR and the New York Central Railroad
fierce. In response to William
and Andrew Carnegie
beginning construction of a
railroad across Pennsylvania to directly compete with the PRR,
Roberts bought up land on the west side of the Hudson River
to directly compete with the NYC
on the east side. J. P. Morgan
as wasteful competition and negotiated an 1885 truce between
Vanderbilt and Roberts, in which each abandoned the competing line.
Vanderbilt's line became the right-of-way for the Pennsylvania Turnpike
, and Roberts's
for the Palisades
Roberts the PRR introduced in 1887, direct service from New York
City to Chicago,
Illinois. The Pennsylvania Limited made the
trip in 24 hours by way of Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.
1890 print of the Johnstown Flood
showing the PRR Stone Bridge.
By 1902, an express train was introduced,
the Pennsylvania Special
, that cut the time to 20
Flood occurred during Roberts's presidency.
PRR's Stone Bridge over Conemaugh River in Johnstown acted as a
dam, trapping debris that covered 30 acres (and soon caught fire).
The PRR was a major participant in the rescue effort. It reopened
its line to Pittsburgh within 3 days, and was the primary means by
which relief workers and provisions reached the victims of the
disaster. The Stone Bridge still stands today.
Roberts greatly expanded the PRR, investing more than $50,000,000
in roadways and equipment, more than all his predecessors combined.
Over his 16-year term as president, mergers and purchases of
affiliated companies increased PRR investments to about
$115,000,000, paving the way for the Pennsylvania Railroad to
become the world's first billion-dollar corporation early in the
- William Bender Wilson, "George Brooke Roberts" in History
of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (1895), pp. 246-60.
- Joan Church Roberts, Our First One Hundred Years: The
Church of Saint Asaph, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania (1992)
- Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians (1963),
- William H. Shank, Vanderbilt's Folly: A History of the
Pennsylvania Turnpike (1964).
- Arthur D. Dubin, Some Classic Trains (Kalmbach
Publications, 1964), pp.76-95.
- David Loth, Pencoyd and the Roberts Family (1961), p.