Robert Pitcairn (1836-1909)

Robert Pitcairn

"Notable Men of Pittsburgh and Vicinity," Percy F. Smith, 1901

Robert Pitcairn (pronounced Pit-Karen) was born on May 6, 1836 in Johnstone, Scotland, the son of parents who had only recently returned from the United States. Ten years later they returned to the U.S. and young Robert finished his rudimentary education in local public schools.

In his youth he was a member of the Swedenborgian, or as it is more formally known, the New Jerusalem Society of the City of Pittsburgh and Its Vicinity church. Later in life he became a member and elder of Shadyside Presbyterian Church.

Following is from: Historic Structures Report: Appendices: Clubhouse, Brown Cottage, Moorhead Cottage, and Clubhouse Annex, written for the National Park Service:
"In the early 1850s, Pitcairn was transferred to Hollidaysburg, PA to serve as a ticket agent and telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania Railroad. When the line from the middle part of the state was completed, Pitcairn was transferred to the Altoona, PA division. He remained there as superintendent of the middle division until 1861, with the exception of 1859, when he was transferred to Fort Wayne, IN to supervise the completion of the line there.

In the early 1860s, when the Pennsylvania Railroad was divided into three, rather than four, divisions as it had previously been, the position of Transportation Secretary was created for Pitcairn. In addition, the Civil War taxed him as well. He was responsible for the supervision of troop movements for the Union Army, aside from his normal responsibilities with the company.

Finally, in 1865, Pitcairn rose to his ultimate dream; the superintendent of the Pittsburgh Division. There he would remain until his death in [July 25,] 1909. An active member of the Pittsburgh business community, Pitcairn held a number of significant positions. He was a director of the following companies: the Masonic Bank, the Citizens National Bank of Pittsburgh, First National Bank of Greensburg, the American Surety Company, and the Philadelphia gas Company.

Married to Elizabeth Rigg, Pitcairn was the father to four children: Robert Jr., Agnes L., Lillian, and Susie."

Robert Pitcairn and Andrew Carnegie: the Slabtown Connection:
Pitcairn grew up with Carnegie in what was known as "Slabtown," perhaps the roughest section of Allegheny City. Both worked as young boys at O'Rielly's telegraph office in Pittsburgh. The boys were, "…assigned to deliver telegrams with news from the 'Eastern line:' shipping reports from Europe transported across the Atlantic by steamer; stock prices from New York City; commercial news from Philadelphia and Baltimore; political news from Washington; and the state capitol in Harrisburg."

Pitcairn served as assistant to Tom Scott in the Hollidaysburg rail yard, along with Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie and Pitcairn assisted with transfer of freight and passenger cars between railroad cars and Portage cars for continued movement. Both men moved on from this to become telegraphers.

Andrew Carnegie fell ill in 1886 and Robert Pitcairn arranged for a special, private train car to pick Carnegie up in Cresson and take him to his home in New York, arriving there on December 12.

In 1890, Henry Clay Frick suggested Andrew Carnegie buy a piece of land owned by Robert Pitcairn on Pittsburgh's East End; eventually, though, the property was bought from Mary Schenley, not Pitcairn.

Pitcairn tried to convince Carnegie, an avowed agnostic since his teen years, to believe in God, but this was to no avail.

Pitcairn was appointed to a commission that was started by Andrew Carnegie to provide funds for "heroes" those killed on the job and those killed trying to rescue those who experienced danger in their jobs, like coal miners.

Robert Pitcairn and the Johnstown Flood, taken from David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood, (1968):
"Sometime between noon and one o'clock a telegraph message came into the East Conemaugh dispatcher's tower from the next tower up the valley to the east. The message was directed to the yardmaster at East Conemaugh, J.C. Walkinshaw, and to the head of the entire division, Mr. Robert Pitcairn, at Pittsburgh. No one would later recall at exactly what moment the message arrived, and numerous people who should have seen it later claimed that they never did. Nor was there ever agreement on its precise wording, but the consensus was that the message said something close to this:



"In Pittsburgh, operator Charles Culp, at the Union depot later said he was the one who had received the message there and that he took it right over 'and laid it on Mr. Pitcairn's table in front of him.' Within an hour Robert Pitcairn, who had a special interest in the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, as well as the Pennsylvania Railroad, was sitting in his private railroad car on his way to Johnstown."

J.P. Wilson was the superintendent of the Argyle Coal Co., at South Fork and a personal friend of Robert Pitcairn. He was asked by Pitcairn to personally notify him if there was ever any danger from the dam. On the morning of the 31st, Wilson sent Dan Siebert to the dam. Siebert said, upon his return, that he had seen water pouring over the top of the dam. After some back and forth, Wilson had the telegraph operator send another telegraph message. When Wilson heard that a South Fork boy reported that the water was eating a notch in the dam, he had the third and final warning sent from the South Fork tower.

"Mr. Robert Pitcairn's private car had been attached to eastbound passenger train Number 18 shortly before noon that morning [May 31, 1889] and rolled out of Pittsburgh's Union Station about an hour later. Mr. Pitcairn was on his way to Lilly to see how serious the storm damage was there, and to look things over at Johnstown and South Fork on the way.

Messages about trouble along the line had been coming in to his office since early morning, including one about the dam. Pitcairn had read it and thought little more of it. First of all, he could not quite understand how Colonel [Elias J.] Unger [president of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club] could be sending such warnings, since he knew perfectly well that Colonel Unger had no telegraph wire at the club and that the telephone line was not open yet. And secondly, as he would say later, he simply 'paid little attention to any reports about the South Fork dam, as they had been made perhaps nearly every year. . . ."

Pitcairn's knowledge of the dam went back more than thirty years, to the time when the Pennsylvania had first bought it. . . ."

But his first real interest in the dam began when it broke in 1862 and wrecked a lot of railroad property in South Fork. Then nearly twenty years later, when the South Fork club finished its restoration and there was talk in the valley about leaks at the base of the dam, Pitcairn had gone up to see for himself, taking along several of his own people from South Fork. They had given the dam what he felt was a thorough enough going-over. Benjamin Ruff had walked with them, saying that what everyone called leaks were actually springs that came from near the ends of the dam. Ruff also promised that he would strengthen things some, and then they all shook hands and went home.

'The only point we were afraid of,' Pitcairn said later, 'was the leaks at the bottom of the dam increasing. . . .' Whether his subsequent membership in the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club was, even in part, his way of keeping his own eye out, is not known. Though it seems highly doubtful, since, unlike Daniel J. Morrell, he had every sort of social and business reason for wishing to be there.

Now his train headed out of Pittsburgh along the muddy Monongahela, past the towering black Edgar Thomson works at Braddock,…then on through one little town after another, East McKeesport, Irwin, Jeannette, Greensburg, and out into open hill country. He had been over the route maybe a thousand times during his years with the railroad. He knew every bend, bridge, siding, every water tower, coal tipple, every depot, every barn and farmhouse along the horizon. He could not claim to know all the men, that would be impossible, but he knew the good part of them, and certainly every last one of them knew him. He was their supreme commander. His word was law from Altoona to Pittsburgh, and the portly frame, the bullet head, the pince-nez glasses and walrus mustache were far better-known among them than the rather inconspicuous features of the man who was then President of the United States. And if it were a question as to which one wielded the most authority, there would have been some debate. . . .

Sitting in the upholstered splendor of his private car, he looked appropriately substantial, and quite tired. He had been up late the night before at the telegraph instrument in his home making inquiries about the weather between Pittsburgh and Altoona. Then he had gone off to town earlier than usual that morning, and with the news of the storm growing worse every hour, it had been a difficult day ever since. But now, watching the landscape sweep past his window, he began to realize just how serious things were.

The rain was coming down in wild, silvery sheets. The whole countryside was awash. Hillsides were mortally veined with angry little creeks. Fields were covered with water that looked to be a foot deep or more. At Latrobe, at the foot of Chestnut Ridge, the Loyalhanna was twice its normal size and well over its banks. Ten miles farther, he saw the Conemaugh for the first time and knew he was up against something unlike anything he had ever experienced. His train was moving very slowly by this time, following the course of the river where it cut through the ridge. On the other side of the ridge, at the village of Bolivar, people were out along the riverbanks watching the torrent rush by. At New Florence the water had spilled through the lowlands, flooding miles of woods and meadows. Pitcairn thought he could actually see the water rising, it was coming up so fast.

After New Florence the train pulled through little Nineveh, where men and boys in gum coats, their collars turned up against the biting wind, their hats dripping with rain, stood beside the track watching the cars clack by.

Then the train started into the breath-takingly beautiful Conemaugh Gap, or Packsaddle, the one pass through Laurel Hill to Johnstown. The railroad ran well above the river here, even with the river in its present condition, but above the tracks the mountainside loomed up another 1,500 feet.

Several miles farther on in the gorge, at a place called Sang Hollow, about four miles from Johnstown, they stopped. The time by now was about five after four.

Pitcairn climbed down from his car and went up to the tower to find out what the trouble was. The operator told him the lines east had gone dead; they tried again several times to get Johnstown, but it was no use. The operator said he could not let them through without clearance, which, according to the rules, was exactly what he was meant to say, even to Pitcairn.

'I was about making up my mind to proceed cautiously, running carefully, to find the trouble,' Pitcairn said later, 'when looking east, I saw some debris. The water before this had been muddy, but very little drift. The debris attracted my attention from its singular appearance, being broken up wood entirely, and in very small pieces. In a short time, the telegraph poles commenced to break down, and threatened to take the tower down with it.'

Then they saw a man coming down the river on some debris, moving very fast. Pitcairn thought the water must have been going by at about fifteen miles an hour. They saw more people coming, hanging on to telegraph poles or what appeared to be parts of buildings or just being swept along and trying desperately and futilely to swim. Pitcairn and the others rushed out to do what they could to save them, but the river carried them off and out of sight.

'I returned to the telegraph office to see what word I could get, when the people came down by the scores; the water rising very rapidly, and men, women, and children on the drift, and we perfectly helpless. . . .'

About six o'clock Pitcairn ordered the train back down to New Florence. The water was still high, but it did not seem to be getting any higher. He had decided to take the passengers back to Pittsburgh, giving them the option to stop off at New Florence if there were any accommodations to be had.

But before leaving, Pitcairn got off a message to Pittsburgh. It was directed to the editors of the morning papers, and its exact wording remains unclear. But sometime between five thirty and six the news was out and on the wire. . . .By then Pitcairn had faced up to the awful realization of what had gone wrong.

His train rolled ever so slowly back through the gorge, reaching New Florence by perhaps six thirty. The first thing he did there was to write out a still longer and more detailed message, which he then put aside, in the hope that some further word might come in from Johnstown itself. So for the next several hours they sat and waited. The rain hammered down outside; men kept coming in and out talking of more bodies found or the few half-drowned souls they had been able to drag ashore. . . .

About ten o'clock Pitcairn received word from Johnstown by way of Sang Hollow. One of his men in Johnstown, a W.N. Hays, had managed to get from Johnstown to Sang Hollow on foot. Apparently he had been on the hillside above the west end of the bridge and was able to make his way down the tracks above the rampaging river. Once he reached Sang Hollow, the message was put on the wire to New Florence.

Pitcairn was told how things were at Johnstown, and he then sent a second message to Pittsburgh, which would be quoted in the papers there at some length. He reported the number of bodies that had been counted going by at Sang Hollow. He said there was no way clear to Johnstown, but that his information was that the city was 'literally wiped out.' He said that the debris at the stone bridge was reported to be forty feet high and that it was burning.

Then he said, 'I fear there will be terrible suffering among those saved which should be relieved as soon as possible. In the interest of humanity I think a public meeting should be called early tomorrow to send food, clothing, etc. to those poor people which we will be glad to forward to Johnstown . . . as soon as we can get a clear track there.'"

On Saturday [morning of June 1] Pitcairn called a meeting of the Pittsburgh Citizen's Relief Committee.

"At one o'clock [Saturday, June 1] a mass meeting was held at Pittsburgh's Old City Hall, at which Robert Pitcairn stood up and spoke briefly about what he had seen. 'Gentlemen,' he said in closing, 'it is not tomorrow you want to act, but today; thousands of lives were lost in a moment, and the living need immediate help.' Then there was a call for contributions. At the front of the hall two men using both hands took in $48,116.70 in fifty minutes. 'There was no speech making,' a reporter wrote, 'no oratory but the eloquence of cash.'"

"Pitcairn, with full authorization from the main office [of the Pennsylvania Railroad] in Philadelphia, did everything possible to speed things up. The Pennsylvania had already donated $5,000 to the relief fund, but that was of small consequence compared to what was accomplished to keep the line open. Pitcairn himself worked almost without let up. All available manpower east and west was rushed into the area, and the cost of everything was assumed by the line."

In the aftermath of the flood, Pitcairn made a statement supporting Benjamin Ruff's 1879-1880 "improvements" to the dam, stating that he was better than any engineer.

Pitcairn was a member of the Duquesne Club and in response to allegations that the Pennsylvania Railroad was heartless in the wake of the flood, gave speeches at the Club regaling members of tales of how the railroad came to the aid of the people of Johnstown.

Last updated: February 20, 2021

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