Joseph Robbins

JOSEPH ROBBINS was born April 4, 1824, at the Robbins homestead, where he still lives. In 1847 he embarked in the coal business, opening the first coal road to run on the Youghiogheny river, at Osceloa, Allegheny county, Pennsylvania. His first venture was on a lease on the basis of one-fourth cents per bushel royalty. The coal was mined and floated down the river in boats, when the water was sufficiently high to carry them, and sold at Cincinnati, at the rate of ten cents per bushel. The means of transportation was extremely venturesome, abut one-half of the boats being lost in the river. However, during the first four years of his coal business he was very successful, meeting with little or no loss, but during the fifth year he lost some boats by parting of the line at Cincinnati. Several also went over the dam at Pittsburg, some at Blenerhassett Island, and one at Louisville. During this time, however, the coal business had increased until he was selling coal at Cincinnati, Louisville and New Orleans. His coal was confiscated by the Confederate government at the outbreak of the war, and he concluded the business was entirely too hazardous to continue, and closed out his interest. The firm was know as Horn and Robbins, composed of Peter Horn an Joseph Robbins, and in connection with their coal business they dept a general store and operated a sand works. In 1857 Mr. Horn sold out, retired and went west. In 1859 Mr. Robbins sold his coal, store and sand interests to Messrs. Kellly and Stout. 

In the year of 1847, when the scheme of improving by slack water the Youghiogheny river was taken up, Mr. Robbins became one of its most active supporters, and aided in raising the amount required to construct the two dams, one at Elrods, and one at Buena Vista. The company was organized by meeting at West Newton. Alexander Plummber, president, Moses Robbins, William Larimer, Cyrus Markle an Joseph Robbins were the organizers and first directors, and William Day was selected as engineer. He had constructed dams for the state on the Kiskiminitas river to feed the canal. The two dams to be constructed cost about $100,000, and this was raised by subscription to the capital stock of the Youghiogheny Navigation Company. The contract was let to William Alston for the first lock at Elrods, and Theodore Swan for the one at Buena Vista. These locks provided slack-water navigation from McKeesport to West Newton. The contractors encountered great difficulty in building the dams--in following the specifications. It required the dams to be built of plank and filled in with concrete. It was discovered that the plank wound not retain the concrete and the dams would not hold water. The company had agreed with the coal operators to have the dams finished in 1848, and boats loaded along the river, and after the river was frozen up many of the boats were lost. Navigation was opened in September, 1849, and was continued until the winter of 1861, when the heavy freeze caused the ice to gorge and the tops were taken off these dams. A committee was then appointed to raise money to repair the Navigation Company's loss, consisting of Thomas S. Cass, of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Swan Caldwell and Joseph Robbins. They met at the office of Mr. Cass, in Pittsburg. Mr. Cass was then acting as president of the Ft. Wayne Railroad, and the matter was turned over to his clerk and subsequently to Andrew Carnegie, who was his assistant, and these three men raised the money and had the dams repaired and navigation resumed. In the winter of 1865-66 the ice was exceedingly heavy. the dams were then again badly damaged, and as part of the subscriptions were yet unpaid Mr. Robbins was required to make up quite a sum for the repairs already done. About June 1, 1866, without any apparent cause, the upper dam gave way and the result was that the lower dam was broken and the slack-water of the Youghiogheny river was gone forever. The washout in the dam was a break over twenty feet in width and came without warning, leaving the boats which were being loaded along the river at the coal tipples down on the bottom of the river, where they remained until broken up and destroyed by the floods of the succeeding year. 

After this Mr. Robbins retired to the farm on which he afterwards lived, comprising about three hundred acres of land, which was taken up by his grandfather, Brintnel Robbins. In addition to farming Mr. Robbins was actively engaged in other enterprises, being at one time the general manager for Thomas Moore of his large mining and distilling interest. He was an organizer of the Metropolitan National Bank, at Pittsburg, and is still connected with its management. He took an active part in politics as a Republican, and served for many years as a school director and delegate at various conventions. He is an active supporter of the Presbyterian church. His business career was very successful, and his interests in coal and other matters were always extensive. A tract of coal which he owns has been mined by W. L. Scott, and is now being mined by the Pittsburg Coal Company. At the present time Mr. Robbins is hale and hearty, and takes an active part in business, politics and everything about him. 

Source Pages 45 & 46 History of Westmoreland County, Volume II, Pennsylvania by John N. Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906 
Transcribed June 10, 1999 by Marilynn Wienke for the Westmoreland County History Project 
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