Railroader Ralph Swinburn (August 4, 1805-June 7, 1895) was one of the earliest railway men in the world and the first railroad engineer in Western Virginia. Possibly he operated the first commercial steam engine in history, because of his association with Englishman George Stephenson, builder of the famous steam locomotive, Rocket. In addition, Swinburn was a competent railway civil engineer.
Swinburn was born at Lamesley, England. By age 12, he was working on a small coal-hauling railway near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There he met Stephenson, later working with him on the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the Liverpool & Manchester, and other pioneering railroads.
Deciding to emigrate to America, Swinburn sailed for New Orleans, arriving in January 1851. He traveled up the Mississippi and Ohio, during which journey he was robbed and stranded without funds in Cincinnati. Fortunately he met Charles O’Conner of the Winifrede Mining & Manufacturing Company there, and by February 1851 was employed at the company’s mines on Fields Creek, in Kanawha County. Swinburn was assigned to lay out and build the first railroad in the region, a narrow-gauge line running from the mines to a barge facility on the Kanawha River. This little railroad preceded the arrival of the mainline C&O by 20 years and was literally landlocked, connecting only to the mine and the river.
Swinburn soon sent for his family, who joined him on July 4, 1851. About a year later, he left Winifrede to work for the Paint Creek Coal & Iron Mining & Manufacturing Company. Here he built a railroad up Paint Creek, extending rail facilities to a mine shaft that had been opened where a large seam of bituminous coal had been found in 1850.
After more than 40 years in railway work, Swinburn retired. In 1855, he purchased land near Ruth, cleared it, and settled down to the life of a farmer, subsequently establishing a gristmill on Davis Creek. A religious man, he was ordained a Baptist minister in 1856. Ralph Swinburn is buried at Graceland Cemetery at Ruth, just outside Charleston.
This Article was written by William H. Dean
Last Revised on November 05, 2010
The Baptist Banner, 6/26/1895.
Summers, George W. Ralph Swinburn - Pioneer in Railway Development. West Virginia Review, (Jan. 1934).