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Roberts recorded chapters in Valley, American history

| Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011

His death on Friday, Dec. 23, 1938, drew front page headlines in The Charleroi Mail.

Describing him as "one of Charleroi's most prominent citizens," the newspaper reported that Richard A. Roberts, 84, died at his home at 701 Crest Avenue at 4 a.m.

The story said he "is believed to have passed away quietly in his sleep as there had been no indication of the approach of death."

To say Mr. Roberts lived an interesting life would be an understatement.

That was emphasized in The Mail and also in a condensed biography about him by the late Norman F. Monack, of Charleroi, a longtime teacher and student of history.

Mr. Monack, who died May 31, 1996, at age 69, also was noted for designing official flags for the Borough of Charleroi, Washington County and the United States Congress.

Among his many other skills and talents Roberts was an author.

He is credited with writing a book, "Reminiscences of General Custer: Custer's Last Battle." It is considered by some Custer scholars to be among the best manuscripts written about General George Armstrong Custer's final days and the June 25, 1876, Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana.

As noted in The Charleroi Mail story on Dec. 23, 1938, Roberts, who served on Charleroi Borough Council and as borough secretary, was born on May 13, 1854, in Allegheny City, which is now known as Pittsburgh's North Side. His parents were William Milnor Roberts, a noted civil engineer, and Annie Galbraith Gibson, a daughter of John Bannister Gibson, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

The Mail said Roberts had lived in Charleroi for 45 years but emphasized that his earlier life "was fraught with much adventure."

To wit:

In 1859, his father, with his family, sailed for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to build the Dom Pedro Segundo Railway as senior member of the firm of Roberts, Harvey & Co.

In addition, he:

-- Lived in Cumberland, Md., in 1868.

-- Attended Tuscarora Academy in Mifflintown (Juniata County), in 1869 to prepare for college.

-- Graduated from Lafayette College in 1875 with a degree in philosophy.

After leaving the 7th Cavalry experience in 1876, he went to Clayton, Wisc., and secured a position as clerk and bookkeeper for the firm of Humbird and Company, which later became Roberts, Humbird and Company, operating sawmills and planing mills.

Monack also wrote that Roberts became a ticket and freight agent and telegraph operator for the North Wisconsin Railroad at Clayton; was elected town treasurer, and also became assistant postmaster - positions he held until 1879. It was in that year that he returned to Rio de Janiero to become confidential accountant for Oliver C. James, agent for the Baldwin Locomotive Works, and also assistant financial editor of the Rio News, a newspaper published in English.

"He later was employed by the Lidgerwood Manufacturing Company for a short time in Rio de Janiero and was sent by that firm to Campinas in the Province of Sao Paulo, Brazil," Monack said. "When W.V. Lidgerwood became very ill in 1881, (Roberts) accompanied him to Hamburg, Germany, and on his recovery went to Coatbridge, Scotland, where the Speedwell Iron Works was located, as confidential accountant for Mr. Lidgerwood."

The Mail story said Roberts returned to the United States in the spring of 1882 and became associated with his brother, Col. Thomas P. Roberts, in Pittsburgh. He worked as a level man on surveys for the East End Railroad, "which was never built," and also was employed with B&O Railroad as transit man on relocation work from Wyland Station to Washington, Pa.

In 1884, Roberts was employed as resident engineer on work with the Monongahela Navigation Company at Lock No. 4 and supervised construction of the large lock that was finished in 1886.

It was during his time at Lock No. 4 that Roberts became involved in building Library Hall - a literary, cultural, educational and social center for residents of North Charleroi until 1919. (We'll have more on that subject in a future column.)

He also served as president of the Fallowfield Citizens Library Association for a number of years.

Roberts worked for Manufacturers Natural Gas Company from 1886 to 1888, first as a civil engineer and then as corporate secretary and auditor.

He also was employed as an accountant with such firms as Westinghouse Electric Company, Marr Contracting Company, North American Construction Company, Matchet Box Works, First National Bank of Pittsburgh and Muncie Land Company in Indiana.

The Mail reported that Roberts became associated with "capitalist M.J. Alexander" in the spring of 1893 and took charge of the Charleroi Land Company. He also was manager of the Charleroi Water Company and was affiliated with Charleroi Gas Company, predecessor of Greensboro Gas Company.

Roberts was elected to Charleroi Borough Council in 1896 and became its president.

He was employed at Lock No. 4 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1899 to 1925, initially as an inspector and then as assistant to George S. Nutt, superintendent of repairs to locks and dams and floating craft on the Monongahela River.

In 1897 and 1898, Roberts helped plan and build St. Mary's Protestant Episcopal Church in Charleroi. He served as senior warden and then emeritus senior warden of the church.

When he retired from the Corps of Engineers in January 1926, he was elected as secretary of the Borough of Charleroi and held that position until March 1933, when he retired from civic duties.

Roberts died less than six months after his wife, Leila Phillips Christy Roberts, passed away on July 24, 1938. Mrs. Roberts was born in Pittsburgh, a daughter of the late James M. and Eleanor Christy (also spelled Christie in some references).

According to The Charleroi Mail account of her life on July 25, 1938, Mrs. Roberts was very active in church work.

Like her husband, she was instrumental in the organization and construction of St. Mary's Protestant Episcopal Church and prior to that had attended services regularly in Monongahela. She also was an active member of the Women's Guild until compelled through illness to retire from church work.

Mrs. Roberts also was active in hospital work and was at one time a member of the board of directors of the former Charleroi-Monessen Hospital.

The Roberts were married on June 16, 1887, and celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1937. They were the parents of four sons and also had seven grandchildren.

The couple is buried in Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

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