John Speller's Web Pages R. B. Osborne (Reading Railroad)

John Speller's Web Pages

R. B. Osborne (Reading Railroad)
The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad had some of the most remarkable engineering works of nineteenth-century America. Many of these were the work of Richard Boyse Osborne (1815-1899), a brilliant young English civil engineer of Irish ancestry.

Richard Boyse Osborne was born in London on 3 November 1815, and died in Glendale, Pennsylvania on 28 November 1899. He came from a family of minor nobility and might have expected to inherit a large fortune except for what he described as "the weakness and delusion" of his father. He accordingly moved to North America to seek his fortune in 1834 and after a time in Canada and then in Chicago and St. Louis, he joined the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad as a draftsman in 1838 and, learning engineering largely "on the job," soon rose to be the company's Chief Engineer. There he distinguished himself by designing the first iron bridge in North America, constructed using Howe's Patent Truss. His Skew Bridge in Reading was also a masterpiece of its day. It was locally nicknamed the "Soap & Whiskey Bridge" owing to the fact that Osborne began by making a model of it in soap, and it was built by Irish "Navvies" who were wont to partake of a drop or two of the hard stuff from time to time.

In 1846 Osborne moved to Ireland to be the engineer responsible for the construction of the Waterford & Limerick Railway (though nominally under the supervision of Charles Vignoles), where he built several more iron-truss bridges including a remarkable skew bridge at Ballysimon. He was also responsible for introducing the first double-bogie eight-wheel coaches in the British Isles.

In 1852 Osborne returned to Pennsylvania where he continued designing structures for the Reading Railroad, but also did quite a bit of work for other railroads. At this time he began work on the Camden & Atlantic Railroad, of which he was both the civil engineer and a major promoter, and he was thus largely responsible for the creation of Atlantic City. His brother, John H. Osborne, was the Camden & Atlantic's General Manager. As well as laying out the city and building its railroad, Richard B. Osborne was responsible for naming the town Atlantic City.

R. B. Osborne was also responsible for engineering Broad Street Station in Philadelphia,built for the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad (later part of the Pennsylvania Railroad) in 1851-52. The station had a 50 ft. Howe-truss span which spanned eight tracks.

Osborne seems to have been something of a narrow gauge enthusiast, and at the time he was chief engineer of the Western Maryland Railroad recommended replacing the company's single 4' 8" gauge single line with a double-track 3' 0" gauge railway. Fortunately this advice was not followed.

In later years he was in partnership with his son in the firm of Richard B. Osborne & Son, Civil Engineers, of Philadelphia.
The timber trestle on the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad at Ringtown, Pennsylvania built in 1854, 390 yards long and 130 feet high. Photographed in 1875, just before replacement.
The West Manyunk bridge on the Philadlphia & Reading Railroad in Philadelphia was the first iron bridge in North America. It replaced a wooden trestle and was installed overnight on 4 May 1845 and replaced in 1910. One of the three 34 ft. Howe trusses shown here survives in the Smithsonian Museum, Washington, DC. The inspection engine shown here, "Black Diamond," also survives in the St. Louis National Transportation Museum
Skew bridge, at Sixth and Woodward in Reading. Designed by Richard B. Osborne in 1857. Every stone of the forty-foot brownstone elliptical arch was individually shaped to fit in place, so there was no need for a keystone. When I lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, most people seemed to think this bridge was named after a Mr. Skew!
Peacock Lock Viaduct over the Schuylkill River at Tuckerton north of Reading, built 1853-1854. Note the circular openings in the masonry of the keyless arches, designed to save weight without weakening the structure.
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