Biography of Albert A. Robinson

There are any number of sufficient reasons why a sketch of Albert A. Robinson should have an important place in the history of Kansas. His home had been in the state for the greater part of half a century. The parent lines of the great Santa Fe system originated in Kansas, and arnong the builders of the Santa Fe Mr. Robinson had been pronounced “the greatest builder of them all.” In this case biography and history go hand in hand and the significant story of the upbuilding of a great railroad system and the development of a large part of the western half of the continent might properly be told as incident to the individual story of Mr. Robinson. However, the history of the Santa Fe railway as it affects Kansas must be left to a separate chapter. The following paragraphs are to be devoted to the main subject of Mr. Robinson’s personal career as a railroad builder, but even so it will refiect many interesting details of the Santa Fe’s building and progress. Most of the material that follows is a condensation from a valuable work on the “Builders of the Santa Fe,” by Glenn D. Bradley.

In the words of this writer, Mr. Robinson, having built nearly five thousand miles of railroad, is one of the world’s greatest civil engineers. The parent lines of the Santa Fe system were practically all constructed under Robinson’s direction. Coming to the Santa Fe a young man in 1871, Mr. Robinson also laid out hundreds of miles of the fast growing road.

“As chief engineer he outlined and execnted the vast building operations conceived by Cyrus Holliday and William B. Strong. Robinson was Strong’s right hand man during the famous Grand Canyon war. Himself a keen judge of men, it was Mr. Robinson who engaged the services of Lewis Kingman, W. R. Morley, George B. Lake, T. J. Seely, Dick Coleman and scores of others–all trusty lieutenants, who proved capable of fulfilling the plans of their chief engineer.

“As vice president and general manager, it was Mr. Robinson’s magnetic personality that drew hundreds of good men to the Santa Fe. He was a great man without fuss or feathers; his high position and large abilities were always concealed by simple modesty. A leader who was loyal to his men, the humblest of whom knew him as their friend, Mr. Robinson had inspired thousands with a chivalrous loyalty that had rarely been equalled. Although more than twenty years have passed since he left the company, the spirit of Albert A. Robinson still goes on in the Santa Fe service. It is the spirit of courtesy, unselfishness, devotion to duty, efficiency and loyalty, which spirit bespeaks the soul of the corporation.

“Besides virtually building the Santa Fe and giving that road the stamp of his great personality, Mr. Robinson was for thirteen years president of The Mexican Central, which road he developed into a big railway system. He had received the highest scholarly honora that the famous university which trained him can offer, And he had always been an all-around citizen and a fine asset to his home community.

“Mr. Robinson was born near the little village of South Beading, Vermont, October 21, 1844. His ancestors for generations back were New Englanders. A grandfather, Ebenezer Robinson, fought two years for his country in the American Revolution, and was for six months confined in the notorious British prison ship, Jersey. One had to search the family records to discover this information, for Mr. Robinson never boasts of his ancestry. Men of his type do not boast.

“His father Ebenezer, Jr., was a country school teacher, farmer and carpenter. The soil where the family had long lived is rough and stony. Farming was carried on under great difficulties, yet the Robinsons were hard workers and always in comfortable circumstances. The father was a mechanic of unusual talent; he loved all things mechanical. Born at a later date this man might have won distinction in technical pursaits. But his ability was passed on to his three sons. Besides the great engineering genius of Albert, another son Stillman W. Robinson, was destined to achieve fame both as a civil engineer and as a professor of mechanical sciences in the State Universities of Michigan, Illinois and Ohio. The third boy, Eina, had also been successful in mechamical engineering. The children of Ebenezer, Jr., and Adeline W. Robinson were: Stillman W., born March 6, 1838; Elna A., born December 1839; Albert A., born October 1844; and Mary E., born in the apring of 1848.

“In the summer of 1848 when Albert was not yet four years old his father suddenly died of typhoid fever. Left without support and with fóbur children –the oldest a boy of ten and the youngest a baby girl of a few months–the mother bravely resolved to keep her brood together. Fortunately for her a brother-in-law, Lewis Robinson, had in South Reading considerable business interests–a general sture, a printing office where State maps were made, a starch factory, a tin shop and a washboard factory. Since railroads were not yet extensive, these products were marketed over the state by means of peddling wagons. The widow was given employment in the printing office where she worked as ‘shading’ maps while the boys, as fast as they grew old enough to work, were hired at odd jobs in their unele’s divers business.

“Five years after the death of her husband, Mrs. Robinson was again married to a man named Alba Childs. In 1856 they decided to locate in the west and so moved to Wisconsin where they became pioneers in a half developed and strange country. The older sons, Stillman and Elna, had been apprenticed as machinists for four years in Springfield, Vermont, and were left behind when the family moved to Wisconsin. Prior to leaving Vermont, Albert, though nearly twelve years of age, had never been out of his home village more than five times. On one of these occasions at the age of eight he took a load of washboards for his uncle Lewis to Windsor, Vermont, on the Connecticut River, sixteen miles away. A year later he made a nine mile trip to Woodstock. These journeys were the greatest events of his boyhood.

“Arriving in Wisconsin, the family visited for a time with the mother’s brother, S. S. Williams, who owned a farm in Rock County about four miles from the town of Edgerton and not far from Janesville. Albert at once began working on this farm. After spending a few months in Madison, the parents decided to make Edgerton their home and here they settled late in 1857. The step-father entered the general mercautile business with a man named Furlong as a partner.

“For about three years Albert devoted his time out of school hours to clerking. Those who have worked in a country store in the early days where goods were always sold in bulk, and where the clerk served as bookkeeper, salesman, janitor and warehouse man, will readily appreciate the job which young Robinson tackled.

“In 1860 the step-father’s health failed and he closed his business. Albert then hired out to a neighboring farmer name Phineas Barker. Phineas gave the lad plenty of work to do–all farmers can do that–but he was, like many farmers, a failure and a ‘ne’er-do-well.’ At the end of a long summer of hard work the boy received for the major part of his wages a hog that was none too fat. Tying a rope to one of the animal’s hind legs, Albert drove his ‘salary’ home.

“A year later, in 1861, Mr. Childs bought an eighty acre farm which Albert, now seventeen, proceeded to work. This place was soon sold and one of one hundred twenty acres purchased in its stead. Here the boy remained for nearly four years until 1865. His stepfather was not strong and able only to do chores and light work. The older brothers had already struck out for themselves. So the support of the family virtually rested upon the boy. It was a struggle. They were in debt for the land. Besides, in those early days of wood-chopping, stump-pulling, grubbing and burning, Wisconsin farms were with difficulty subdued, and they were not easily tilled. But Albert made good. Not only did he raise good erops and make the soil pay, but he made a success of tobacco raising. This great staple, in the production of which Wisconsin now ranks high, was only introduced into that state in 1861. Robinson was one of the first successful tobaceo growors in Wisconsin. In 1863 he produced an exceptional crop of five acres which paid well.”

As the writer indicates, Mr. Robinson might have become a successful farmer or merchant and a man of strong influence in a restricted locality. However, he was ambitious for an education, and even a college education, which fifty years ago was considered something of a fad and was usually enjoyed only by the boys of well-to-do parents. While clerking in a store and working on a farm he continued his studies in the lower grades, taught a district school one winter, and spent two winter terms in a small Baptist Academy in the neighboring Village of Milton. At the age of twenty-one he determined to secure a university training.

“In the fall, of 1865 Robinson outered the University of Michigan. Before leaving Wisconsin he had paid for the home farm and located his sister and step-sister in the same academy he had attended at Milton. He landed in Aun Arbor with one hundred seventy-five dollars which had been saved for him from his father’s estate. During his four years’ residence at the university his stepfather was able to send him but one hundred dollars. Robinson made the balance of his expense money as best he could. The first year he did odd jobs to pay his way. But the university authorities soon resognized his merit. They learned of the efforts he was putting forth to secure an education and did all’ in their power to help him. Through the influence of President E. O. Haven and Professor De Volsen Wood, Robinson was given a position at the end of his freshman year as an assistant on the Great Lakes’ Surveys. In other words, he helped the Government engineers survey the Great Lakes. This work engaged all his spars time during the years 1866, 1867 and 1868. Besides helping to pay his college expenses this proféssional work gave him some valuable experience. While at Ann Arbor he and two class mates roomed and boarded themselves, but during his last year he lived at the home of his brother Stillman, who had just been appointed: assistant professor of Engineering in the university.

“Robinson graduated from the University of Michigan in 1869 with both the collegiate and engineering degrees of Bachelor of Seience and Civil Engineer. In this now famous ‘Class of ’69’ there were also graduated George B. Lake, Thomas J. Seely and Daniel H. Rhodes–all of whom won distinction in the building of the Santa Fe. In 1871 Mr. Robinson was awarded the degrce of Master of Science. Twonty-nine years later, as president of The Mexican Central, he was called back to Ann Arbor to receive the degree Doctor of Laws, which is the manner in which a university confers its highest honors upon those who have achieved great things for the good of humanity.

“Mr. Robinson’s railroad career began in May, 1869, when he went to St. Joseph, Missouri, and entered the employ of the St. Joseph and Denver City Railroad. He started in at the bottom, serving first as an axman for the company engineers. He advanced rapidly. First he became a chainman, then a levelman, a transitman, office engineer, locating engineer and assistaut engineer. All these promotions came within two years. So brilliant a showing did he make that three universities, Kansas, Illinois and Northwestern, all tried to hire him as a professor of civil engineering. But he purposed to stick to railroad work.”

He at first worked under J. S. Burlingame, and then became assistant engineer under Burlingame’s suecessor, Colonel Severance, who at that time was mayor of St. Joseph. In 1869-70 under Colonel Severance he was in charge of surveying and locating a line to Kearney, Nebraska. The management of the road changed in the spring of 1870 and be continued with the new regime until the completion of the line to Maryville, Kansas. He then became city engineer of St. Joseph through courtesy of Colonal Severance. This employment ceased when he was declared ineligible owing to insufficient residence.

“It was on April 1, 1871, that Mr. Robinson entered the service of the Santa Fe as an assistant engiueer under ‘old’ T. J. Peter. The road which was then scarcely one hundred miles long had been built through the efforts of Peter and Holliday in spite of great opposition. For the wiseheads thought old man Holliday a hot air visionary in attempting to drive a railroad across the ‘worthless’ prairies of Kansas. Twenty-two years later when Robinson as vice president and general manager left the Santa Fe, ‘Holliday’s road’ had grown into a system more than nine thousand miles in extent; and over half of this system had been constructed by this brilliant engineer and his subordinates.

“Mr. Robinson’s first work with the Santa Fe was on surveys and construction between Topeka and Atchison. When not stationed at his headquarters in Topeka, he was for more than a year actively engaged in extending the line in Kansas toward the Missouri River and west and south across the state.” Track was laid from Newton to the west line of Kansas during 1872. At the time the western line of the state was unknown, having never. been surveyed. This boundary line was established in 1873. It was uncertain at the time whether the railway company would extend their lines southwest or up the Arkansus Valley. Mr. Robinson was sent on an exploring expedition in the former direction, but the company finally determined to take the Arkansas Valley route. During this expedition the party was troubled by the Indians, and the news went out that Mr. Robinson and his entire force had been lost. By January 1, 1873, the line had reached Colorado. Mr. Robinson, though not always present, went over the line frequently on horseback to inspect the work as it progressed.

“On April 1, 1873, after just two years of service, Mr. Robinson was appointed chief engineer of the Santa Fe. In the summer of that year the track, reached Grenada, and during the following fall he and the president of the road made a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and he spent much time in examining the mineral deposits and the general features of topography in the vicinity of Raton Mountain. During the following two years he was busy in Kansas and in Colorado and New Mexieo carrying out extensive investigations and explorations for the company. In 1874 the line was extended to Las Animas and Pueblo, and in 1877 the branch to Eldorado was completed. The great panic of 1873 had brought all constructive railroad enterprise to a standstill, and the Santa Fe also suffered from the disastrous grasshopper years of the early.’70s.

“Toward the close of 1877 William B. Strong came to the Santa Fe as general manager. Always a man of great energy, Mr. Strong’s ambition was now fairly popping. He found an engineering department splendidly organized and under one of the best eivil engincers of the age. Strong found Robinson a man with whom wonderfully efficient cooperation was possible; a man whose power over his men was no less than Strong’s, and a man whose extraordinary ability to master engineering problems made great expansion quite possible. It must always be remembered that Robinson was already eminent in his profession; he would have been a great engineer in spite of fate. But had it not been for Robinson’s engineering skill and masterful cooperation, Strong, great an executive as he naturally was, might have achieved the career of just an ordinary railroad president. It was the Robinson-Strong team work that made the Santa Fe a great system. And without the combination of these extraordinery men whose exploits are a classie in railroad building, it is hard to see how the Santa Fe could ever have approached its present dimensions. Great railroads cannot be built, nor operated, without great engineers.”

Within three months after Strong became general manager the Santa Fe had begint its struggle with the Denver and Rio Grande. That brought about the Graud Canyon war. Mr. Robinson had reconnoitered the canyon during the winter of 1872-73. Under an Act of Congress March 3, 1875, the Santa Fe Company was given the sole right to build through the Gorge. Later the Supreme Court decided that no company could monopelize a mountain pass to the exclusion of all others. In the meantime a war of injunctions. and collisions between quick witted lawyers and some physical violence had been waged between the Santa Fe and the Denver and Rio Grande forces. Though at first victorious in the Grand Canyon trouble, the Santa Fe entrasting its case to the courts, was at last technieally defeated, being compelled to give up the road it had built in the canyon after being paid a handsome bonus and the cost of eonstruction. Also the Santa Fe was forced to give up the Denver and Rio Grande narrowgauge line whieh it had leased. Mr. Robinson was an active factor in the events in Colorado as an executive of the Santa Fe, but without going into the details of the war reference should he made to one of his engineering achievements. This was the eonstruction of a remarkable bridge in the Royal Gorge, where the Santa Fe built a line which the Denver and Rio. Grande afterwards had to buy. At one point in this canyon the walls, which are nearly three thousand feet high, come together until they are searcely thirty feet apart. The rocky ledge on which the road was being built thus terminated into space with the river below. How to bridge this gap was a serious problem. “Finally after puzzling for days Robinson hit upon a solution. He placed heavy iron girders across the caynon from wall to wall, like the rafters on a house. The ends of these girders he anchored in solid rock. From these rafters or girders he then suspended a bridge which sustained the track until it reached another safe ledge on the opposite side of the gap. The plan worked successfully. Although the original structure had since been replaced by a larger and heavier one, the same principle is still employed by the Denver and Rio Grande engineers to bridge this gap.”

The character of Mr. Robinson as a railroad builder is well illpstrated in the important part he took in realizing the dreains of a transcontinental line through New Mexieo and Arizona. This part of his story should be quoted in full.

“On February 26, 1878, Strong ordered Mr. Robinson to hurry from Pueblo to Raton where he was to ‘take the Pass and hold it.’ Without delay the latter boarded a train for El Moro, then the nearest railroad point to the scene of operations. By a rather strange coineidence the Denver and Rio Grande engineer was on the same train, bound for the same point and with the same instructions–to get to the Pass without delay, seize it and hold it. The Rio Grande official, De Remer, evidently did not comprehend Robinson’s purpose. Anyhow, on arriving at El Moro that evening, De Remer turned in for a comfortable night’s rest. But while he slumbered and slept, Robinson was busy. The latter at once drove to Trinidad, four miles away, where he quickly engaged a good aized force with tools and firearms, who were to be in readiness at a moment’s notice. As in many other disputed points in Colorado, the citizens of Trinidad and that locality favored the Sauta Fe Company although it was an outsider. This was because the Denver and Rio Grande people had adopted the poliey of building their road past the towns already established. Their plan was to avoid existing towns and start new ones. Whereas the Santa Fe tried to reach these towns wherever possible. And it likewise sought the good will of local residents along its right of way.

“In making preparations to start grading operations, Robinson was exceeding his instructions. He had been ordered only to make survey through the Pass after he had secured it. But having thus learned of his opponent’s evident scherne to forestall him, he saw that he must act on his own initiative. Besides making arrangements for armed men to begin construetion, he also met W. R, Morley at Trinidad. The two men at once struck out for Uncle Dick Wootton’s house at the foot of the Pass. Robinson learned from Morley that the latter and Kingman, with a corps of assistants, had already landed on the job, and were ready for business. Morley and Robinson spent the night at Uncle Dicks’. Early the next morning they were advised that the D. & R. G. Were sending a grading force across country from El Moro to the Pass and that they would begin work the following day.

“The two Santa Fe engineers now hurried back to Trinidad, fifteen miles distant, to confirm the report and get their force. Finding that the D. & R. G. crowd had really started, they assembled their men and returned, evidently reaching Uncle Dicks’ late that evening. By four o’clock on the following morning they were at work by lantern-light, grading on what is now the north approach to Raton tunnel. Kingman had made a temporary location without surveyors’ instruments. Even Uncle Dick had grabbed a pick axe and joined the party.

“The Denver and Rio Grande force arrived about nine that morning and they were surprised and not a little puzzled to find their rivals in possession of the Pass. They attempted no violence and went into camp where they waited three or four days for orders. Mcanwhile the Santa Fe railroad was being constructed over the mountain.

“After some delay it was announced that the D. & R. G. would build through Chicken Creek Pass, which parallels Raton about three miles west. The Santa Fe engineers were climbing Raton Pass on a two per cent grade. De Remer from the D. & R. G. claimed he could cross via Chicken Creek on a one and one half per cent grade. Robinson knew that could not be done, otherwise he would have taken the latter pass.

“But after locating a line across Chicken Creek and waiting for a few weeks the Denver and Rio Grande suddenly abandoned the job and took all their outfit back to El Moro, where they loaded it on a train for the north. Having failed to seeure the only practicable route over the Raton Range they were now bound for the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas at Canyon City west of Pueblo.”

The greatest single achievement of Mr. Robinson as a railroad builder was the construction of one thousand miles of road in a single year. That was the construction of the Santa Fe line into Chicago from the Missouri River. By the close of 1886 the Santa Fe system had secured a continuous main Ene of 1870 miles extending from the Missouri River to San Diego, California. Many short lines had been acquired, and in 1886 a thousand miles was added to the system by the purchase of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe connecting with the Gulf of Mexico. All this great system brought traffie from all over the West and Southwest to the Missouri River, but there had to deliver to other lines for carriage to the eastern markets. It was determined that Chicago was the logical eastern terminus for this great system. To carry out this project the Chicago, Santa Fe & California Company was incorporated December 3, 1886. To get a road between the Missouri River and Lake Michigan the plan was adopted of building only what main line was positively necessary and purchasing minor lines as could be used to advantage. The company therefore bought the Chicago & St. Louis road, a rather poorly constructed and equipped line of about one hundred fifty miles between Chieago and Pekin. This road’s Chicago terminal was at Twenty-third Street, and it was necessary to secure better facilities closer to the business center. The terminal problem was less difficult at Kansas City, since the Santa Fe owned an interest in a belt line extending out to Big Blue Junetion. The final problem of getting into Chicago was therefore reduced to the construction of 350.6/10 miles of new line between Big Blue Junction in Missouri and Ancona, Illinois, the rebuilding of about one hundred miles of the main line of the Chieago & St. Louis road and the securing of terminal rights and facilities in Chicago. This plan also involved the building of five large bridges not to mention a large number of smaller ones.

After the consummation of the plan, the clearing away of legal difficulties, and the perfecting of the business organization the task was reduced to field operations.

“In February, 1887, Robinson received orders from President Strong to go ahead and have the line ready for operation before the end of the year. This order was at once carried into effect and work started all along the line with great anergy.

“The grading and bridge building were let to private contractors who employed about five thousand men along the route. A little later this number was increased by a thousand railway employes engaged in track laying and construction work. The organization of the engineering staff and workmen was not unlike that of an army in the field. Over the entire enterprise, with beadquarters in Topeka, but everywhere present, with Chief Engineer Robinson. In charge of the eastern division, with headquarters at Fort Madison, was. P. F. Barr, who, resigning to take service with another company, was succeeded by Major C. W. Vaughn. B. F. Booker, with headquarters in Kansas City, was in charge of the western division between Big Blue Junction and the Des Moines River.

“Robinson’s plans moved with absolute precision. At every crossing point the tracks of other roads were utilized to deliver construction material. The utmost harmony prevailed. Harmony and maximum efficieney have always characterized the enterprises conducted by A. A. Robinson. The details of this remarkable enterprise are merely a recital of smooth steady progress. The dirt just kept flying, the track kept getting longer and the bridge structures went up quietly and fast. There was no fretting or excitement. Everybody was good natured and the work moved smoothly and irresistibly to completion. That was the Robinson way of doing things. While the new main line was in progress the old Chicago and St. Louis road also underwent betterment. Its grades were reduced and it was relaid with heavier steel.

“At six o’clock p. m. on December 31, 1887, the last gap was closed near Medill, Missouri. The Missouri and Mississippi bridges–and all bridges–were ready for traffic, and the Chicago extension was an accomplished reality. In January, 1888, train service was started. In April the new line was taken over by the operating department. Meanwhile the present splendid terminal in Chicago was secured at great effort and expense, and on January 1, 1890, the Chicago line was formally incorporated into the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad System. Old Man Holliday’s dreams had finally all come true; William Strong’s ambitious had all been realized; and one of the most significant chapters in the development of the Sants Fe had been written. This schievement had been realized by the building of thres hundred fifty miles and the rebuilding of one hundred miles of railroad and by eonstruction of over nine miles of bridges and trestles–all within eleven months. Robinson the engineer did it.

“On May 1, 1893, Mr. Robinson left the Santa Fe to become president of the Mexican Central. This position he held until 1906, when he retired. He had proved himself an able administrator as well as a great engineer. Not only did he add over 1,800 miles to the Central by building and purchase, but he operated it successfully under difficulties. He was forced to buy railway supplies on a gold standard while the revenues of his road were in silver of a continually diminishing standard. He was equal to the crisis, however, and kept his road out of a receivership. He did more than that. When he went to the Mexican Central the stock of that company sold for five cents a share; bonds were at forty-three. When he resigned the presidency Mexican Central stock sold at fifty and its bonds at eighty.

“Since 1906 Mr. Robinson had lived in retirement at Topeka, where his home and grounds are one of the beauty spots of the city. To visit this home is to see a rate collection of art treasires. To meet and know Mr. Robinson is to find nature’s finest handicraft in man. Throughout the Santa Fe System one ever hears among old employes this unfailing sentiment: ‘If I could only do things and get along with my men like Mr. Robinson did.'”



Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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