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The municipal history of Rock Island contains some illustrious names. It is a city that has been slow in attaining its present proportions, but its growth has been steady and constant. To those hardy and adventurous men who in an early day saw Rock Island’s possibilities and expended strength, time and money in laboring to build up what was then a mere handful of people gathered together, great credit must be given. They had faith in Rock Island’s future. They labored to make that future a reality, and in their labors they were successful.
One of those men who had a most prominent part in the development of Rock Island, and who in his long and happy lifetime saw the city grow from a small hamlet to a thriving municipality, and who could well feel that his faith in that city he had chosen as his home had not been misplaced, was Captain Thomas J. Robinson.
He was born in Appleton, Maine, July 28, 1818. His father was of English, and his mother of German extraction, though both were natives of the State of Maine. The early youth of their son was spent on the parental farm. Farm life, however, proved most uncongenial to the lad, and he decided to abandon it at the earliest opportunity. While still a mere boy he learned the cooper’s trade, and by this means he earned sufficient money to complete a course of study at Kents Hill Academy, and upon the completion of his course he began teaching school in his home neighborhood.
In 1838 he came to Illinois. The journey was a long and tedious one, requiring more than thirty days for its completion. Upon his arrival in this State he first settled at White Hall, where he secured a school and taught for three years.
During this time he was appointed assessor for Greene County by Governor Carlin. He entered upon this work with the same thoroughness that characterized his every act throughout his life, and made the first perfect list of property that Greene County had ever had. Upon his journey to Illinois the young man had discovered that the subject of water transportation was a most important one, and that it was destined to take a leading part in the development of the new country. He engaged as clerk on a Mississippi packet plying between New Orleans and Memphis, and for two seasons he continued in this position. Upon abandoning this work he made a visit to his home in Maine where he remained for a year.
But Thomas J. Robinson knew that the west was the land of promise for a young man, and at the expiration of the year spent at his home he again returned to Whitehall, coming by way of Chicago. The city was then in its infancy, and Captain Robinson in his later years related that for $50 he could have bought the plat of ground at the corner of Jackson and Clark Streets, now occupied by the Grand Pacific Hotel. Upon his return to White Hall he again resumed his post as a school teacher, and continued in that vocation for another two years. Then he secured a position as a deputy in the Treasurer’s and County Clerk’s office, and in this position he remained four years.
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On January 15, 1846, occurred the marriage of Thomas J. Robinson and Miss Amy Ann Henderson, a young lady of White Hall. Together with his brother-in-law, Mr. Perry Henderson, he purchased a farm in Rock Island County, near Hillsdale, where he remained for three years. At the end of that time he sold his interest in the farm, and formed a partnership with Temple, Dickerson and Company, with whom for a period of five years he was engaged in the mercantile and milling business at Port Byron.
As has been said in the opening of this sketch, Captain Robinson was one of those who saw and had faith in the future of Rock Island, and in 1853, upon the dissolution of the partnership above referred to, he removed to this city and purchased of Judge John W. Spencer a partnership interest in the Rock-Island-Davenport ferry. He at once assumed control of the active management of this enterprise and his progressive nature immediately put into effect many improvements, the principal of which was the substitution of steam for the horse as a means of motive power. He also added a second boat to the Company’s equipment, thus greatly facilitating and expediting business, to such a degree that Rock Island became one of most noted, as well as one of the most profitable trans-river locations on the upper Mississippi.
During his entire lifetime Captain Robinson was one of the most powerful factors in promoting the interests of the city, and always maintained that it, together with Moline and Davenport, would eventually become the leading manufacturing center of the west. He was one of the most prominent figures in Rock Island’s industrial progress, and was a promoter of many new manufacturing enterprises. He was one of the organizers of the Rock Island Glass Company, the Illinois Watch Company, the Rock Island Quilt Company, and the Black Diamond Coal Company. While en a business trip to an eastern city in an early day he saw for the first time a street railway in operation. Upon his return to Rock Island he at once advocated the organization of a company for the purpose of connecting Rock Island and Moline by a street railway. The company was organized and the project was carried out. That small system was the nucleus of that splendid system which today connects and ramifies throughout the tri-cities. Captain Robinson was conspicuous on his labors to secure the location of the Government Arsenal on Rock Island. He gave active assistance in promoting the construction of a railroad between Rock Island and St. Louis, and the line constructed is today the St. Louis Division of the C. B. Sr, Q. He was also identified with Mr. Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the lumber king, in the development of the lumber industry in Wisconsin.
In the location and construction of the Hennepin Canal Captain Robinson was particularly active, and besides his individual effort he expended a large amount of money in furtherance of those efforts. From the beginning Captain Robinson had advocated the idea that the Hennepin Canal should be of sufficient size to admit the largest inland vessels, and it was a great disappointment to him that it was not built upon a larger scale.
In the financial field Captain Robinson was conspicuous by his success. In 1871 he founded the Rock Island National Bank, an institution which still exists in handsomely remodeled quarters, and which, since its organization, has held rank as one of the strongest and safest financial institutions in Western Illinois. Captain Robinson was its president from the date of its organization to the time of his death, and so closely and thoroughly was he identified with the institution that it was known by nearly everyone in Rock Island as the “Robinson Bank,” rather than by its regular corporate name.
In his political affiliation Captain Robinson was, in his early life, a Henry Clay Whig. Upon the disintegration of the Whig party he gave his allegiance and support to the Republican party, which had but recently been organized. In his sentiments Captain Robinson was always a pronounced anti-slavery advocate. He possessed a very extensive acquaintance with the leading men of the country in both church and state. He was a sincere personal friend of Abraham Lincoln; Richard Yates, Sr., the war governor of Illinois; Governor Richard Oglesby and others. During the troubled time of the Civil War he was frequently called in council by Governor Yates, and in such high esteem was he held by that great executive that he could have had any appointive office within his gift, but he steadfastly refused political preferment. He did, however, accept the office of associate judge of Rock Island County and president of its board of supervisors during the war, but these offices were urged upon him and he entered upon their duties at a personal expense and inconvenience to himself, but he cheerfully gave both of his time and his talents in the performance of the duties that were entailed.
Both Captain and Mrs. Robinson throughout their lives were devoted members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and were chief among its influential and generous members. They lived simple, unostentatious lives. They were generous to those less fortunate than themselves, and their generosity consisted not in the mere giving of money but of personal service in relieving the condition of the unfortunate. Of their marriage two sons were born, James Franklin and John. A sketch of the former appears upon another page of this work. The latter son died in infancy.
The death of Mrs. Robinson occurred June 18, 1895, and that of Captain Robinson, April 12, 1899. In their death Rock Island lost a man and woman who lived the finest, highest type of Christian life, and who exemplified, by their kindly, generous acts, the tenets they professed.