May 6, 1836 - 1909
Robert Pitcairn – like his boyhood friend Andrew Carnegie – was a Scottish immigrant who rose from messenger boy to a position of prestige and power. But their similarities end there.
Robert Pitcairn was born in 1836 in Johnstone, near Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland, the son of John and Agnes Pitcairn. With his parents he immigrated to Pittsburgh and settled there. The Pitcairns and Carnegies were friends in Scotland and came to America on the same sailing vessel.
As with Andrew Carnegie, he began his business life as a messenger boy—they worked together for the Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company. In 1853, Carnegie helped Pitcairn obtain his first job for the Pennsylvania Railroad as ticket agent at the Mountain House at Hollidaysburg, from there he was transferred to Altoona. And when Carnegie left the PRR, Pitcairn replaced him as head of Pittsburgh operations, there. He was general agent and superintendent of the Pittsburgh division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Unlike Carnegie, however, Robert Pitcairn was a deeply religious man and he lived his Scots-Presbyterian beliefs as a founder, long time member and leader of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church.
Before the congregation built its current building, for many years, Pitcairn served as its choir director. Stop and let that sink in a moment. A leading businessman of the city (and country) serving as a choir director of his local congregation. How many of today’s famous business leaders, Fortune 500 and so forth, can say that they do something of similar commitment to their church out of a compelling desire to do so?
It would be a fascinating study for some historian to do a book long exploration of the relationship between Pitcairn and Carnegie and to ask the hard question of which man was truly the more successful in the things that really matter.
Carnegie had no interest in the Christian faith other than to take pot shots at it and insist that it was passé. Carnegie's self-promoting writings and speeches are full of screeds about Christianity—Carnegie thought himself wiser than the wisdom of the ages.
Robert Pitcairn, on the other hand, was personally devout and his faith convictions were born out in the way that he lived every week. Pitcairn did not worship out of convention or show, but rather was involved in the life of his congregation both to give and to learn. The records of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church and the long term memory of its members are quite clear about this, and Pitcairn and his descendants established a foundation at Shadyside for the long term well being of the church and community, called the Pictairn-Crabbe Foundation. Trustees of the church are also directors of the Pitcairn-Crabbe Foundation, which oversees the grant-making decisions of this charitable foundation.
In addition to his association with the Pennsylvanian railroad, Pitcairn was a director and vice president of the American Surety Company and held the same offices for the Fidelity Trust and Title Company. He was a director of the Masonic Bank, Citizen’s Bank, First National Bank of Greensburg, and the Western Pennsylvania Exposition. He was also a friend and financial backer of George Westinghouse.
He inspired appreciation and respect and a level of fondness that is worth noting. Pitcairn's business associates called him "Uncle Robert", he was known all along the railroad lines as "RP", Andy Carnegie called him Bob.
In 1880, Pitcairn ordered construction of a rail yard along Turtle Creek near Pittsburgh that would become the largest rail yard in the world. The borough of Pitcairn, PA, located adjacent to the yard, was named in his honor. Originally part of Versailles Township, it is named for Robert Pitcairn, a former superintendent of the Pittsburgh division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Robert Pitcairn was instrumental in locating switching yards, an engine roundhouse and car repair shops in the area in the 1880s near what was known as Wall Station. With the expansion of the rail yards, several plans of lots were laid out to accommodate railroad workers. As the village grew, it was given the name Walurba, meaning a suburb of Wall. In 1893, residents decided they wanted to form their own community, separate from what were then Patton Township and Wall. The petition was approved the following year and in 1897 Walurba Station was changed to Pitcairn. The depot is now a municipal parking lot and the railroad yards are gone. Pitcairn has the distinction of being the only municipality in Allegheny County to provide its own electric and cable television service. In March of 1899, a right-of -way was granted to the Turtle Creek Valley Electric Company, later Duquesne Light Company, to erect a pole line to provide electricity for homes. In January 1902, council enacted an ordinance to float a $20,000 Bond Issue to erect a light plant and distribution system. In the fall, a drive began to sign up customers for electricity when the plant would be ready for operation. As an inducement to applicants, a free light was granted for the front porch of each home, which of course also improved street lighting. In 1936 and 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, the municipality sent residents an electric bill marked 'Paid in Full' as a Christmas present. The borough still redistributes electricity to its residents and provides its own cable television service. (Source: Borough of Pitcairn website)
Pitcairn’s pre-Flood concern about the condition of the dam at Lake Connemaugh was well recorded. Indeed he had asked his friend Joseph P Wilson, the superintendent of the Cambria Mine at South Fork, to keep a watchful eye on conditions at the dam and to let him know if there were any problems or concerns. It is well documented that Wilson did send a warning telegram from South Fork via Johnstown to Robert Pitcairn at Pittsburgh that the dam was about to fail. The telegraph handset from South Fork is on display at the Unger Farm which is now the main building of the Johnstown Flood Memorial. The post-Flood testimony of both Pitcairn and Wilson can be read on their website.
Read Robert Pitcairn’s entire statement:
Joseph P. Wilson’s statement:
Robert Pitcairn’s response to the Johnstown Flood is also well worth noting. In spite of (and one could argue as a corrective to) the vow of silence of the SFF& HC members in reaction to the Flood, and as head of the Pittsburgh Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Pitcairn knew he was in a position to do something and do something he did.
Pitcairn assembled a Relief Train that was the first to head from Pittsburgh to Johnstown with the people and resources needed to respond to the disaster. McCullough gives an outstanding account of it in his book. As Robert Pitcairn said…
“The whole Pennsylvania Railroad was put at the disposal of the public to the detriment of their prompt repairing and re-establishing their own lines. In fact, the public had full possession of the Pennsylvania Railroad line west of Johnstown, and the committee acted with myself in the relief of the people.”
This is a far cry from the SFF&HC members who hid behind the stony silent facades of their East End mansions and speaks volumes about the true character of Robert Pitcairn who was one of the real heroes during that sad time. In contrast, Andrew Carnegie did not show up in Johnstown until the mess was cleaned up, the bodies were all buried and the sun was brightly shining again, to dedicate his new library, which replaced the one that South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club member and Johnstown resident Cyrus Elder had built for the city, and which had been destroyed by the Flood. These are simply the facts of the matter and they show the contrasting elements of both men’s character vividly.
On July 26, 1856, Robert Pitcairn married Elizabeth Erb Riggs (1841 - ) of Altoona. Their home was at the corner of Ellsworth and Amberson Avenues in Shadyside.
Agnes Laurene Pitcairn (1857) married Omar S. Decker (Nov. 22, 1856-). They lived at 517 Amberson Avenue in Shadyside. Their children:
- Omar Scott Decker () his daughter:
- Dolly Decker
Susan Blanche Pitcairn (1868) Married Victor Lee Crabbe on Dec. 2, 1897. Their home was Cairncarque on Ellsworth Avenue in Pittsburgh’s East End. Their children include:
- Elizabeth Pitcairn Crabbe ()
- Susan Lee Crabbe ( - 1939) Married Mr. Hunt. The remainder of the Pitcairn fortune was left to granddaughter Susan Lee Hunt. In her Last Will and Testament dated May 20, 1939, the late Susan Lee Hunt created the Pitcairn-Crabbe Foundation to perpetuate the memory of her mother, Susan Pitcairn-Crabbe, and her grandparents, Robert and Elizabeth E. Pitcairn. And on December 23, 1940, the Pitcairn-Crabbe Foundation was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation by order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
Lillian Pitcairn (1859); as a child she went by "Lydia". Married Charles Lewis Taylor (April 3, 1857 - February 3, 1922; who was a Carnegie Steel executive and retired in 1901 upon the sale of the company to become U S Steel), on October 31, 1883. The Taylor family lived at 5533 Ellsworth Avenue. Their children:
- Lillian Taylor (); Married (1) Russell L. McIntosh of Westfield NJ, (2) Albert Edward Savage. Russell L. McIntosh was a leading citizen of Westfield. He served Westfield's vice-chairman of the Liberty Loan program during W W I. Lillian Taylor McIntosh served as a volunteer nurse duing the influenza epidemic.
Robert Pitcairn, Jr. (October 2, 1874 - ); graduated from Princeton in 1897; married Marion McLean Sellers in Pittsburgh, Nov 4, 1903 . She was the daughter of Jennie P. McLean and stepdaughter of H D W English; this family was related to the Leishman family. They moved to Pasadena CA.;he was on the board of Pasadena hospital.
For several winter seasons the Pitcarins vacationed at Greens Hotel in Pasadena California. In 1906 Mr. and Mrs. Robert Pitcairn Jr. built a house in Pasadena California designed by the outstanding architectural firm Greene and Greene: The Pitcairn house would combine the entire lexicon of their mature design elements: a shingled exterior; a roof pitch of three feet, ten inches in twelve feet; major interior and exterior timbers; deeply overhanging eaves; exposed rafters, purlins, and beams that project significantly beyond the eaves; “Malthoid” roofing that integrates the roof with the rain gutters; an up-swept “lift” in the ends of the ridge beam; basement ventilation made of Chinese blocks of green-glazed terra-cotta; and casement windows. Most important were the terraces and sleeping porches that extend the outdoor living space on the upper level. They adapted Japanese construction themes to Pasadena’s regional conditions and their own aesthetic sense. They used keyed scarf joints to decoratively join and strengthen in-line long timbers and used wedges to fix rails to posts for the first time in their designs. They also pioneered the artistic use of wrought-iron straps to bundle posts and corbels. This was the first time all of these design elements came together in one house. The presentation drawings for the house show an American Indian Navajo theme in the lead glass designs, but these designs were abandoned during construction in favor of plain glass.