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Robert Railton: Denbigh's Engineer

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 Year’s 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 Westfield’s 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 Railton’s 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 Denbigh’s 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 Denbigh’s 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 ship’s 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 runner’s 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 cent.

After the war Railton returned to Galveston and Hiram Close’s 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.

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The Railton family plot in Old Episcopal Cemtery, Galveston.  Railton's pointed headstone is at lower right.

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A close-up of Raitlon's headstone.

Special thanks to Harrold Henck and Marc Cuenod, both of Galveston, for their assistance in bringing Robert Railton’s story to light.


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What's New?

new.gif (977 bytes) John Newland Maffitt and the Galveston Blockade | Chasing a Fox new.gif (977 bytes)
new.gif (977 bytes) 2001 Field Crew | In-Kind Contributions  | How Much Coal? new.gif (977 bytes)
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"An Extremely Fast Boat" | The "Mobile Packet" | A "Bold Rascal" | Denbigh Today
Denbigh's Crew | The Erlanger Loan | Birkenhead-Built: An Unrivaled Legacy
Denbigh Primary Source Documents | Galveston During the Civil War | Denbigh, Clwyd, Wales
The U.S. Coast Survey and the Blockade, 1861 | The Ship's Library: Recommended Reading
Running the Blockade Into Galveston: A Personal Narrative | Denbigh Day-by-Day
Denbigh Portrait | Official Number 28,647 | Valve Chest Animation (300kb) | Investors
Links of Interest | Denbigh F.A.Q. | Denbigh's Engines | Denbigh's Boiler
Feathering Sidewheel


April 27-28 Side Scan Survey | May 7-10 Site Mapping
June 16-17 Sub-Bottom Profiling | Site Mapping, July 9-12, 1998 | Dive Trip, October 18-30, 1998
Underwater Images | 1999 Summer Field Season | Denbigh Site Plan
Jerry Williams Speaking Tour | Denbigh Project Benefit Dinner |
Denbigh Artifacts | 2000 Field Crew | 2000 Field Crew Photo Album |
The Denbigh Wreck Site: A Quicktime VR Panaorama
Connecting Rod Recovery, July 22-24, 2000 | Modeling a Shipwreck
Credits & Thank-Yous

J. Barto Arnold et al. 1998-2000, The Denbigh Project, World Wide Web,
Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A&M University, E-mail: (  
Monday, April 17, 2000 Revision.

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