Robert Railton was
born in Manchester, England, on December 11, 1830. In his teens he emigrated to the United
States, where he found work in several machines shops in New England. Most notably, he
completed his training as a machinist at the Hinckly Locomotive Works in Boston, the
leading American locomotive builder of the day.
In 1848 he came to Galveston aboard the brig Mary,
and quickly found work with Hiram Close, who operated the only foundry in Galveston. He
remained there until the beginning of the Civil War, becoming an expert at his trade.
At the Battle of Galveston on New Years Day 1863,
the Union gunboat Westfield was blown up by her own crew to prevent her capture.
Local Confederate forces were desperately short of artillery, and Railton superintended
the task of salvaging Westfields 13-inch (33cm) diameter wrought-iron
paddlewheel shafts and boring them to serve as rifled guns. Railton designed machinery and
tools for moving, aligning and boring the shafts, and ultimately produced three guns of
7,000 pounds (3,180kg) each, with a 5.75-inch (14.6cm) bore and reinforcing jackets around
the breech. The three rifles added a massive punch to the harbor defenses of Galveston; it
was said perhaps with some exaggeration -- they could throw an 80-pound (36kg) shot
a distance of 5 miles (8km).
Details of Railtons work aboard Denbigh have
not been found, but knowledge of practice aboard other ships of the period allows us to
make some reasonable guesses. Since a biographical sketch of Railton published during his
lifetime makes no mention of service aboard any other vessel, it seems likely that he
joined Denbighs crew sometime after August 1864, when that ship first visited
Galveston. As an engineer aboard Denbigh she carried two engineers when she
sailed from England in late 1863 Railton would have been responsible for ensuring
that Denbighs machinery was kept in the best possible operating form, and
that a rigorous schedule of maintenance was kept up. He would have been responsible for
making any and all repairs to the ships machinery; even in port, he would have to
rely primarily on his own resources and ingenuity in this regard. Railton would have been
continually trying to adjust and fine-tune the machinery to coax out of it a bit more
power or efficiency no small feat on Denbigh, with her worn-out boiler. He
would have monitored carefully the amount of coal being brought aboard the ship, and kept
careful notes on its rate of consumption. He would have supervised one (or both) of the
watches of firemen, monitored the level of water in the boiler, checked on the even
distribution of coal in the bunkers, and on and on and on. When one adds to these
responsibilities, which were the norm for seagoing engineers in the 19th century, the
additional complications created by running the blockade (when an untimely machinery
failure could easily mean capture of the ship, her cargo and crew), it is easy to see why
the blockade runners engineer was usually highest-paid member of the crew except for
the master. While the pay was very high probably between $1,000 and $2,000 in gold
for every successful round voyage the engineer on a blockade runner earned every
After the war Railton returned to Galveston and Hiram
Closes foundry. He married Emma (Emily) Juliff in 1868. In 1887, at the age of 56,
he struck out on his own and opened his own machine shop, which was located near the
waterfront at 19th and Strand.
Robert Railton died as the result of a bizarre and tragic incident. Two days after Christmas,
1898, Railton was on the wharf at the head of 20th Street in Galveston, talking to a
friend. A short distance away a group of longshoremen were shooting craps when an argument
broke out. One longshoreman lunged at another with a cotton hook, and the threatened man
pulled a .38 caliber pistol from his coat and began firing wildly. The longshoremen
scattered, and when they looked back they saw Railton lying on the ground. One shot had
entered his back and passed through his abdomen. Railton was taken to the Sealy Hospital,
where he died the next day after much suffering.
Railton is buried in the Episcopal Cemetery in Galveston,
along with his widow Emily (1850-1925), his daughter Maud Emily (1879-1900), and son
Robert Jr. (d. 1887). Railton had two other children, John Henry and Alice.