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Moncure Robinson Papers

Identifier: 01/Mss. 65 R56, 77-14

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Scope and Contents

Personal and professional papers of Moncure Robinson dealing mostly with management of Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad in which he held controlling interest. Prominent correspondents include James Buchanan, Washington Irving, Dennis Hart Mahan, Winfield Scott and Abel Parker Upshur. Also included is the correspondence of his father, John Robinson (including letters from William C. C. Claiborne), his brothers, Cary, Edwin, Conway and Eustace Robinson and his brother-in-law John C. R. Taylor whose letters concern plantation management. Also included are notebooks of Wirt Robinson.


  • Creation: 1787-1889


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access:

Collection is open to all researchers. Manuscript collections and archival records may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal or state right to privacy laws and regulations, such as the Virginia Public Records Act (Code of Virginia. § 42.1-76-91); and the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (Code of Virginia § 2.2-3705.5). Confidential material may include, but is not limited to, educational, medical, and personnel records. If sensitive material is found in this collection, please contact a staff member immediately. The disclosure of personally identifiable information pertaining to a living individual may have legal consequences for which the College of William and Mary assumes no responsibility.

Conditions Governing Use:

Before publishing quotations or excerpts from any materials, permission must be obtained from the Special Collections Reserach Center, and the holder of the copyright, if not Swem Library.

Biographical Information:

Moncure Robinson (1802-1891) was born in Richmond, Va. He was educated at the College of William and Mary and at the Sorbonne where he studied to be a civil engineer. He was a railroad planner and builder and a railroad and steamboat owner. His most noted project was the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. He retired from engineering work in 1847. Further information about this individual or organization may be available in the Special Collections Research Center Wiki: .

Moncure Robinson is referred to as “one of the most distinguished civil engineers in the United States” and the “genius of America’s earliest railways.” He was instrumental in the early development and growth of the country’s great railroad system.

Unlike many of the engineers of the early nineteenth century, Robinson did not receive his engineering education at West Point. He acquired his engineering education through self-directed study and the observation of engineering projects throughout the United States and Europe. Within nine years of the introduction of the first steam locomotive in the United States, he surveyed, supervised the construction, or was the consulting engineer for 721 miles of track, or one-third the entire railroad track built to that time. At the time of his death in 1891, over 163,000 miles of track spanned the country.


The Robinson family presence in Virginia dates to 1688 at New Charles Parish. Moncure Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia on February 2, 1802. He was the eldest son of John Robinson III and Agnes Conway Moncure.


Moncure entered The College of William and Mary in 1816 and was a student there until his expulsion in 1818. The College asked Moncure and 21 other students to leave after a dispute involving the charges for a lecture class. He was later exonerated, but never returned to the school and fulfill his father's expectation to follow his example and become an attorney.


In 1818, fascinated by the canal building that was taking place in Virginia, Robinson applied for a position with the Board of Public Works to survey a route from Richmond to the Ohio River. Denied a job because of his youth, the Board recognized his enthusiasm and allowed Robinson to accompany the surveyors as a volunteer. Three years later, the Board hired him to assist in locating an extension for the James River Canal. He traveled to New York to view the construction of the Erie Canal. That visit convinced him of the advantages of railroads over canals as a means of transportation and an aid to commerce. He submitted a report to the Virginia Board of Public Works disputing the benefits of the further development of canals, and praising the value of the railroad in its place. The Board did not view the report enthusiastically. He resigned his position and, at that moment, became devoted to the development of railroads.


George Stephenson, the inventor of the first steam locomotive for railways that he called, a “steam propelled traveling engine,” influenced Robinson greatly. In 1825, Robinson traveled to Europe to meet Stephenson, and attended lectures in mathematics and science at the Sorbonne in France. For three years, he would study the canal and bridges of England and Wales, the great port installations built by Napoleon in France and the dikes of Holland.


Upon his return to the America in 1828, the state of Pennsylvania commissioned Robinson to survey a railroad link over the Alleghany Mountains at Blair’s Gap Summit to connect a section of canal at Hollidaysburg on the east with one at Johnstown, 37 miles to the west. Robinson’s innovative survey and ingenious design consisted of five level and five inclined planes on either side of the mountain. Stationary steam engines pulled railroad cars up a series of incline planes on one side of the mountain and lowered them down along the inclined plane system on the other side. His design provided specifications for the first railroad tunnel in the United States-the 901 foot Staple Bend Tunnel. The Alleghany Portage, completed in 1834, was an important section of a 400-mile system of canal and rail connecting Philadelphia with Pittsburgh to compete with the Erie Canal.


During the next three years, Robinson engaged in building railroads in Virginia. He was responsible for building four of the first five railroads in the state. His lines connected Richmond with Roanoke, Petersburg, Fredericksburg, and points on the Potomac River. He is responsible for designing a bridge over the James River to accommodate the route from Richmond to Petersburg. The bridge, considered engineering marvel at the time, was 2,844 feet long and rose sixty feet above the river. The latticed superstructure consisted of 19 spans of lengths varying form 140 to 153 feet.


The American Philosophical Society recognized Robinson’s engineering proficiency and elected him to membership in 1834.


In 1835, Robinson married Charlotte Randolph Taylor, the granddaughter of Edmund Randolph, the first Attorney General of the United States and Thomas Jefferson’s successor as Secretary of State. The newly married Robinson settled in Philadelphia. The Robinsons had 11 children, 5 sons, and 6 daughters, 8 surviving infancy. The surviving children were John Moncure of Baltimore, Edmund Randolph of New York, Agnes Conway, who married Charles Chauncey, Beverley who married Anna Foster, Charles Randolph, Moncure of Philadelphia, Frances Brown who married Algernon Sydney Biddle and Nathalie who married Henry C. Boyer.


In the first year of his marriage, Robinson began work on his greatest engineering achievement-the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. The railroad was intended to carry anthracite coal mined in northeastern Pennsylvania to market at Philadelphia. The 1,932 foot Black Rock Tunnel at Phoenixville, and a stone bridge of four, 72-foot long spans spanning the Schuylkill River are major engineering features the line. As Chief Consulting Engineer, Robinson formulated three fundamental rules for determining road grades and track curvatures, invented the iron freight car and was first to use stone for track ballast. In 1836, he traveled to England to obtain investments in the Philadelphia & Reading and returned with over two million dollars from investors. Robinson designed and named one of most powerful steam locomotives of the time, the “Gowan & Marx”, for its two prominent English investors. The “Gowan & Marx” could pull forty times its own weight.


In 1839, he surveyed the route for a railroad from Brunswick, Georgia, on the Atlantic coast, to the Gulf of Mexico.


In 1840, Nicholas I, the Czar of Russia attempted to employ Robinson to oversee the building of a railroad system in Russia. Robinson declined the offer but consulted with Russian engineers on how to proceed.


By appointment of the Secretary of the Navy in 1842, Robinson, along with Commodores William Shubrick and David Conner served on commissions that eventually recommended Wallabout Bay as the site for a dry dock and naval station in New York harbor.


Robinson retired from active civil engineering in 1847 and moved to Philadelphia to devote his time to his personal investments. He left his profession as the leading railroad engineer in the United States, attained an international reputation for engineering excellence and marvelous executive talents, and was frequently consulted during his retirement on various railroad projects. He influenced Frederick List, called the “Father of German Railroads” and Michel Chevalier, the Minister of Public Works under Louis Philippe and the most eminent engineer in France.


In 1853, the American Society of Civil Engineers bestowed one of its highest honors on Robinson by electing him an honorary member.


Robinson purchased a large farm at Penllyn, north of Philadelphia and operated it as a Southern plantation. He was an open advocate of abolition and freed his slaves at the outset of the Civil War; however, he had sympathies with the South partly because of his investments in southern railroads. His son John Moncure, a Colonel in the Confederate army, went to England by order of Jefferson Davis to procure loans and purchase supplies for the South. Many of the John’s contacts were the very same investors that his father had courted during the construction of the Philadelphia & Reading. While in Europe, John corresponded with his father and transferred large sums of money southern banks.


Moncure Robinson died on November 16, 1891. He is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. At the time of his death, there were over 163,000 miles of railroad track in the United States.


4.00 Linear Feet

Acquisition Information:

The materials in this collection were donated to William & Mary Special Collections Research Center numerous batches between the period of 1928 and 1977 by Miss Agnes Conway Robinson, Moncure Biddle (as a gift of the Moncure Robinson descendants), Wirt R. Robinson, and from University of Virginia Special Collections.

Related Materials:

See also; Robinson Family Papers (Mss. 39.1 R56), Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

Physical Description

3302 items

Processing Information:

Box and folder inventory completed by Emily Eklund, SCRC staff, in January 2011.

Guide to the Moncure Robinson Papers
Finding Aid Authors: Special Collections Staff.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
The collection description/finding aid is written in English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Research Center Repository