George Brooke Roberts (1833-1897)

George Brooke Roberts

George Brooke Roberts' name appears on the Guest Register of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, 1886. Whether Roberts was either a member or just a guest is not fully known, but Mr. Roberts does have quite a prolific biography, mostly because of his involvement with the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The following is from: George H. Burgess and Miles C. Kennedy, Centennial History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company: 1846-1946, (Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 1949):

"Immediately following the retirement of President [Thomas A.] Scott on June 1, 1880, the Board elected George B. Roberts as his successor. Mr. Roberts had been acting as president for several months during Col. Scott's illness, and his succession was universally accepted.

Aside from an early apprenticeship on a Pennsylvania engineer corps, Roberts had been employed by the company only since 1862, when he was elected to a newly created office, that of Assistant to the President. Mr. Thomson had recently lost the services of his two senior officers, William B. Foster by death in 1860, and Thomas Scott, then in the War Department, and undoubtedly felt the need for strengthening his organization from without. . . .

It was as unusual then, as now, for the Pennsylvania to start so young a man, or, in fact, any man, in such an important position, but George Roberts, never far away from the observation of the Pennsylvania's management, had shown professional traits which particularly qualified him to deal with the difficult problems of rehabilitation and construction which confronted the Philadelphia and Erie.

George Brooke Roberts was born on January 15, 1833, at 'Pencoyd Farm,' in [Bala Cynwyd] Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, an estate which had been the home of his father's family for five generations. One of his parental ancestors had come to Pennsylvania from Wales in 1683, and, at least from his great-grandfather's day, the family had been members of the Society of Friends. His father, Isaac Warner Roberts, had married his mother, Rosalinda Evens Brooke, in 1827.

Although his early life was spent on the parental estate, young Roberts received his early education at the Lower Merion Academy which must have been quite adequate, since he was able to matriculate at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when he was 15, and to complete the three-year course in two years. He took a year's postgraduate work to complete his formal education in 1851, when he was still but 18 years of age.

The next 11 years were packed with engineering experience, all in railroad location and construction. He was first employed by J. Edgar Thomson as a rodman on an engineering corps engaged in locating the line of the Pennsylvania's Mountain Division, the difficult section over the Alleghenies. After a little more than a year of this, he went to the Sunbury and Erie as an assistant engineer, where he spent another year on the North Pennsylvania Railroad (now Reading), projecting a line from Philadelphia to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. From this position, in 1854, he became principal assistant engineer of construction of the Northwestern Railroad of Pennsylvania (later the West Penn Division of the Pennsylvania) where he stayed till 1857; then to the Allentown Railroad, as chief engineer, and when this road was finished, to the Mahanoy and Broad Top Mountain, and then the Lorberry Creek Railroad, all of which eventually went into the Reading system. He wound up this interesting independent career as chief engineer of one of the West Jersey lines. So much moving about may seem unpurposeful, but in the expanding days of railroading it was not. On the contrary, it was the way to acquire experience and a professional reputation, and young Roberts succeeded in both.

As assistant to Mr. Thomson, his display of all-around ability brought him numerous assignments other than those dealing with the Philadelphia and Erie, or even with engineering, and as a reward of his efforts, the office of Fourth Vice-President was created on May 3, 1869, and he was elected to fill it, and to become a director of the company. On the death of the Second Vice-President in 1873, Roberts was jumped to this office, and when Col. Scott moved to the presidency in 1874, Roberts succeeded him as First Vice-President. The office of First Vice-President had grown greatly in importance during Thomas Scott's incumbency, and now, there was also entrusted to it the supervision of the comptroller's department.

This rapid elevation of a young man with no previous experience in railroad operations or management can only be explained by sheer hard-working ability. None of his contemporaries accuse him of undue aggressiveness; rather, they speak of his modesty and gentleness of manner, and his willingness to hear all sides of a question. Needless to say, his association with Thomson and Scott gave him a schooling in railroad executive work which could not have been duplicated anywhere in this country.

Mr. Roberts' 17 years as president were marked by bitter railroad wars, increased competition with continuing reductions in freight rates and a freight traffic which nearly trebled in volume while passenger travel nearly doubled. The increase in business made necessary important improvements and additions to the existing plant and at the same time existing lines were extended or new lines built to reach fresh sources of traffic. Little of this growth was spectacular but most of it was well conceived, and some of the improvements made for the more expeditious handling of traffic in President Roberts' day are relied on for the same purpose now, fifty or more years later; notably the Trenton Cut-off to by-pass freight around Philadelphia, the yards and connections to get freight through the Pittsburgh bottleneck, and the improvement of the West Penn Division to relieve the main line east of Pittsburgh. During all this period, the Pennsylvania fully held its own against all competition and continued to pay a return to its stockholders. If the rates were lower than in the past, so were the earnings on all investments.

Without doubt, the most spectacular performance of the Roberts regime was the acquisition of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Company, which rounded out the Pennsylvania system in a very important respect, and also prevented this valuable property from falling into the hands of a rival. But first we must tell something about the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore, which had a considerable history in its own right. . . .

This Roberts and Cassatt refused to do, and before midnight they signed an agreement with the stockholders' committee to buy 92,000 shares of Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore stock for $78 per share and to pay the same price for all additionally offered before April 1. They had, as yet, no plans for financing such an important purchase for cash, but their annual stockholders' meeting was to be held the next day, March 8, and they hurried home to attend it.

As a result of its offer to purchase other stock, The Pennsylvania Railroad Company became the owner of 217,819 shares out of 235,901 Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore shares outstanding. The total price was $17,032,879. Part of the money came from the sale of 176,051 shares of its own stock to stockholders at par, and the remainder from the sale of $10,000,000 in 4 per cent collateral trust certificates secured by 200,000 shares of Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore stock. Dividends from this stock were to be used to pay interest and the remainder applied to a sinking fund for principal retirement, and since the stock had paid eight per cent dividends all through the depression of the seventies, it was anticipated that principal retirements would be at a fairly rapid rate." [This railroad route provided the PRR with a connection to Washington, D.C.]

The Roberts administration stops the Potential of Threat from the South Penn Railroad:
"About this time J. Pierpont Morgan stepped into the picture. Mr. Morgan, in 1885, was only on the threshold of his career in railroad finance, but he had recently gained considerable reputation by his sale of a large block of New York Central bonds on the London market, and previous international contacts had given him considerable knowledge of the attitude of foreign investors. He felt keenly that the cutthroat competition between the railroads and more particularly the reckless competitive building then in progress would soon destroy the market for American railroad securities, here and abroad. He therefore undertook to make peace.

He proceeded to bring the heads of the New York Central and the Pennsylvania together in a number of conferences. No one at the time knew what went on at these meetings, but the papers readily guessed what they were about, and great public interest was aroused particularly in one held aboard Mr. Morgan's yacht (the first 'Corsair') at which were present, besides Mr. Morgan, only Chauncey M. Depew, president of the Central, and Messrs. George B. Roberts and Frank Thomson of the Pennsylvania. What is known today about these deliberations is gleaned from the testimony in some subsequent legal proceedings which will shortly be described.

The agreement finally reached was that Mr. Morgan would obtain the consent of the owners of 60 per cent in interest of the South Penn syndicate to sell such interest to The Pennsylvania Railroad Company, and that the Pennsylvania would give in payment, $5,600,000 in three per cent bonds of the Bedford and Bridgeport Railroad Company, which it would guarantee. The Pennsylvania, also (through the Northern Central), would gain control of the Beech Creek Railroad on appropriate terms. No informative answer was obtained from any witness at the subsequent hearings as to what, if any, discussion had been had about the West Shore and all we know is that the New York Central acquired control of this property by lease in the fall of the same year, 1885. From aught that can be discovered the two transactions were entirely unrelated.

Work on the South Penn was discontinued on September 12 and was never resumed, at least as a railroad project. That much was accomplished, but the rest of the plan was soon protracted litigation.

The State of Pennsylvania brought injunction proceedings to prevent the Pennsylvania Railroad Company from taking possession of either the South Penn or the Beech Creek Railroads, and after long drawn out proceedings a permanent injunction was granted.

The Beech Creek stayed in the hands of the New York Central, and presumably the South Penn syndicate could have taken its property again and completed its road, but it never undertook to do so. . . ."

Other Accomplishments from the Roberts Administration:
The total main track length of railroads operated or controlled by The Pennsylvania Railroad Company increased from 6,092 miles at the end of 1879 to 8,922 miles at the end of 1896, an increase of 2,830 miles. Of this, about 1,700 miles were in the territory east of Pittsburgh and Erie. . .

The West Penn Division was extended east from Blairsville to Bolivar, about 12 miles, in 1883, as part of a plan to improve the handling of traffic through Pittsburgh, and from a point near Bolivar a branch 16.5 miles long was built on the north side of the Conemaugh to serve the Cambria Iron Company's yard east of Johnstown. Practically all the other additional mileage in this area consisted of short branches to serve coal mines, steel plants, or factories. . . .

Two of the many terminal improvements made during the Robert's administration were not actually in terminals at all, but were lines designated to keep through freight out of the congested terminals of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The first of these was the Trenton Cutoff, a line 45 miles in length, completed in 1892, which leaves the New York-Philadelphia line just west of the Delaware crossing at Trenton, passes well to the north of Philadelphia and comes into the main line at Glen Loch, Pennsylvania. By the use of this line, the busy tracks in the neighborhood of Philadelphia were relieved of all the freight traffic between New York and the West, and the route for such traffic was shortened by seven miles and had lower grades than the main line.

The Western Division was improved and extended partly to relieve the main line to the east of Pittsburgh, partly to provide an easier grade than obtained on the main line, but particularly to keep freight from beyond Pittsburgh out of the most congested terminal area. The West Penn tracks started at Blairsville, Just off the main line on the Indiana Branch 52 miles east of Pittsburgh, and ran from there to Freeport, on the west side of the Allegheny River, and thence down the river to a connection with the Fort Wayne road for the West. This route was 18 miles longer than the main line, but its use avoided all the industrial area which had been built up to the east of Pittsburgh, with its switching and commutation traffic, as well as the very congested area adjacent to the main passenger station and the Allegheny River bridge.

In order to make this line really usable, it was necessary considerably to improve its original alignment and grades, and also to extend it east from Blairsville a few miles to make a better connection with the main line. This work was completed in 1883. . . .

By the end of 1896, the main line was practically all four-tracked between New York and Harrisburg. From Harrisburg to Altoona, 58 of the 127 miles had four tracks and 24 more had three. Over the mountain, from Altoona to Gallitzin, the New Portage Railroad had been reconstructed and made into a relief line for eastbound traffic. This was the line built by the State in the fifties which had been abandoned when the Pennsylvania bought the Public Works. From Altoona to Pittsburgh, there were 36 miles with four tracks, 38 with three, and the remainder, 42 miles, had only two. The line from Philadelphia to Washington was double-tracked, as was the Northern Central between Baltimore and Harrisburg, but aside from those we have mentioned, most of the lines east of Pittsburgh were single-track railroads.

West of Pittsburgh, the requirements were not so great. The Fort Wayne was double-tracked to Crestline, Ohio, but 189 of the 278 miles between that point and Chicago were still single-track railroad. Fifty miles of the Panhandle between Pittsburgh and Columbus were single track and west of that point, almost all of it was.

Needless to say, by this time all the principal lines were laid with steel rails, and all replacements were made with this metal. If any iron remained in the track it was in little used branch lines or sidings where the traffic had been too light to wear it out.

The wooden bridge, or trestle, was almost a thing of the past, at least on important lines. An extensive program of bridge replacements was begun in 1887 and continued, with some interruptions, through 1896. The last large wooden bridge to go was that of the Northern Central over the Susquehanna River at Marysville, which was abandoned in 1882 when a connection was built permitting that company to use the main line bridge.

In connection with the multiple tracking of the main line, there were also a good many changes of alignment to eliminate curvature and reduce grades. The early railroads too often had to sacrifice efficiency for economy. It was cheaper, often, to go around a hill than to go through it, hence the introduction of numerous and sharp curves which were inimical to the fast service in demand in the nineties.

Interestingly, Mr. Roberts was the President of the PRR during the time of the 1889 Johnstown Flood:
"No history of the Roberts administration would be complete without mention of the floods which devastated a large part of Pennsylvania in 1889. The Johnstown Flood is known by name to everyone. . . .

As to the railroad, in addition to its tracks, bridges, and buildings, it lost 24 passenger cars, 561 freight cars and 34 locomotives.

East of the mountains, the rainfall was even heavier. Three of the largest bridges in the Juniata Valley were washed away, along with several miles of track, and several of the largest bridges of the Philadelphia and Erie also. According to the Annual Report (for 1889): 'The total amount expended to December 31, 1889, in repairing the loss caused by the floods to your system was $3,475,425.01, leaving still a considerable sum to be expended to restore it to its original condition. This outlay does not include the indirect loss from the suspension of traffic and the serious interruption to the working of the entire system caused thereby.'

All available forces east and west of Pittsburgh were concentrated on the herculean task of restoring the line, and in only eight days, temporary repairs had been made on the Philadelphia and Erie line sufficient to use it for a detour route for the passenger service. Trains then used the main line to Harrisburg, the Northern Central and Philadelphia and Erie to Driftwood, and the Allegheny Valley to Pittsburgh. It was June 14-two weeks after the dam broke-before the first passenger train used the main line all the way from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and June 24 before the track was in shape to resume operating the 'New York and Chicago Limited Express.' Heavy freight was detoured over the northern route until July 17th.

This was by far the greatest emergency the railroad had ever been called upon to face, and the way it forces were marshalled to cope with it, and the speed with which the property was restored bear tribute, as nothing else could, do the strength and ability of the organization the Company had been building up through 40 years of operation. . . ."

The Roberts Administration Created a Sort of Benefits Package for Employees:
The Pennsylvania's management, as well as others, was on the lookout for means to improve the condition of, and create greater contentment among, its employes, and of these appeared as the 'Voluntary Relief Department.'…

Contemporary newspaper accounts indicate that the plan as originally proposed was not wholly acceptable to the employes, and, to meet their views, was modified in a number of respects, but as so modified it went into effect on February 1, 1886, and by the end of that year it had 19,952 members on the Pennsylvania and its affiliated lines east of Pittsburgh. Similar plans were established on the Western Lines.

Under the plan, employes made regular monthly contributions based upon their wage rates, and received benefits in proportion to these rates. All the expenses of the 'Relief Department' were to be paid by the Company, which also guaranteed any deficiency of income to meet the scheduled benefits and took over any continuing benefits to employes incapacitated for more than 52 weeks.

Another step of similar nature was taken at the beginning of 1888, when the Employes' Saving Fund was established. The Company undertook the management of and the responsibility for this fund and the payment of 'reasonable' interest on deposits.

The functions of the Saving Fund were taken over by an employes' organization, 'The Employes' Provident and Loan Association,' which was organized in 1923, and which had more than $8,000,000 in its savings account at the end of 1945. In addition to the saving fund feature, this Association makes provision whereby employes may obtain moderate emergency loans, increase their pensions, and purchase on the installment plan bonds and stocks of any Company in the Pennsylvania Railroad System."

The Death of George B. Roberts:
"Mr. Roberts had suffered for 15 years from a valvular weakness of the heart resulting from typhoid fever contracted while serving on an engineering corps locating the Pennsylvania Railroad's Mountain Division. . . .Finally, while on a vacation trip in August 1896, he was stricken by a heart attack, and after a long illness at his home, he died on January 30, 1897, at the age of 64."

He died in Bala Cynwyd. He was first buried in Section G of Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, but was eventually reinterred in Saint Asaph Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd.

Last updated: February 20, 2021

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