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George Brooke Roberts, from Distinguished Railroad Men of America (1890).
George Brooke Roberts (January 15, 1833 - January 30, 1897) was a civil engineer and the 5th president of the Pennsylvania Railroad (1880-96).

Born on Pencoyd, his family's ancestral farm in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvaniamarker, Roberts graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institutemarker in 1849, and taught there for 2 years before becoming a rodman for the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). From 1852 he worked for the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad, 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

Early in Roberts's tenure the PRR completed Broad Street Stationmarker in Philadelphiamarker, a seminal event in the city's history. Prior to this, PRR locomotives did not cross the Schuylkill River into Center Citymarker, 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-designed station. With the 1871 decision to build Philadelphia's City Hallmarker 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 Line). A dozen years later, the PRR hired Frank Furness to greatly expand Broad Street Station, turning it into the largest station building in the world.

Main Line

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 (to Harrisburg, Pennsylvaniamarker) 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.

Roberts 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 Schoolmarker). Theophilus Parsons Chandler, Jr. 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."

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 alterations to 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 department store now occupy the City Avenue site. The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion from Lower Merion Historical Society.

PRR Expansion

General Map of the Pennsylvania Railroad and Its Connections (1893).
PRR routes are outlined in black.
George 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 Jerseymarker, until 1911) to Washington, DCmarker. Amtrak uses this same route today.

Competition between the PRR and the New York Central Railroad was fierce. In response to William H. Vanderbilt 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 saw this 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 Parkway.

1890 print of the Johnstown Flood showing the PRR Stone Bridge.
Under Roberts the PRR introduced in 1887, direct service from New York City to Chicago, Illinoismarker. The Pennsylvania Limited made the trip in 24 hours by way of Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburghmarker. By 1902, an express train was introduced, the Pennsylvania Special, that cut the time to 20 hours.

The 1889 Johnstown Floodmarker occurred during Roberts's presidency. The 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.

Legacy

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 20th century.

References

  1. William Bender Wilson, "George Brooke Roberts" in History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (1895), pp. 246-60.
  2. Joan Church Roberts, Our First One Hundred Years: The Church of Saint Asaph, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania (1992)
  3. Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians (1963), p. 192.
  4. William H. Shank, Vanderbilt's Folly: A History of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (1964).
  5. Arthur D. Dubin, Some Classic Trains (Kalmbach Publications, 1964), pp.76-95.
  6. David Loth, Pencoyd and the Roberts Family (1961), p. 54.


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