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Abraham Coates Fitz-Gibbon

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Abraham Coates Fitz-Gibbon (1823-1887)


1887 Obituary [1]

ABRAHAM COATES FITZ-GIBBON died on the 4th of April, 1887, at his residence Moorside, Bushey Heath, Herts.

He was the second son of Lieutenant Philip Fitz-Gibbon, R.N., and was born at Mount Eagle, Kilworth, Co. Cork, on the 23rd of January, 1823. His father died when he was three years old, and his mother sent him to be educated at the Royal Naval School, London, and afterwards apprenticed him, in 1837, for a term of six years, to Sir Charles Lanyon, M.Inst.C.E. This gentleman was so much pleased with the talent and industry exhibited by his young pupil that he employed him, first as clerk of the works on certain public buildings in Belfast, and subsequently as assistant engineer on the Londonderry and Coleraine, Belfast and Ballymena, Londonderry and Enniskillen, and other railways. During his professional training he had the advantage of an extended and varied engineering practice, including road-surveying and making, bridge-building, harbour-work, drainage, and waterworks, as well as railway-surveying and architectural work.

In 1847 he entered the service of Mr. William Dargan, the eminent contractor, with whom he remained five years as one of his principal agents and managers. During this time he completed for Mr. Dargan 10 miles of the Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway, 60 miles of the Dublin and Cork Railway, and the whole of the Newry and Portadown Railway.

In March 1852 Mr. Fitz-Gibbon was engaged, on Mr. Dargan’s recommendation, by some London capitalists to proceed to the United States for the purpose of examining the route of the then proposed Illinois Central Railway, as well as to estimate the cost of constructing and equipping the same, and to report generally upon the merits of the line, 704 miles in length, with a view to a tender being made for the work. These services he performed to the satisfaction of his employers, Messrs. Fox, Henderson and Co., Mr. Thomas Smith, Director of the London and North Western, and others. Within three months from the day on which he sailed from Liverpool he travelled over the whole route of the proposed railway, examining the country, and sent in an exhaustive report, with a detailed estimate of the cost of the entire undertaking.

Having executed this commission he returned to the United States, and to Canada, where he remained four years, during which time he became thoroughly conversant with American engineering practice, especially in regard to railway works, and harbour and river improvements.

In October 1857 Mr. Fitz-Gibbon connected himself with the Ceylon Railway Company, and was sent out, in charge of the engineering staff, to act as the company’s agent as well as to represent the late Mr. W. T. Doyne, M.Inst.C.E., the Chief Resident Engineer, until his arrival in Ceylon. Here it was his duty to examine the various routes over which a line of railway might be constructed between Colombo and Kandy, a distance of about 80 miles. On Mr. Doyne’s arrival in the colony Mr. Fitz-Gibbon acted as principal assistant, and was engaged during two years in conducting the very difficult surveys, and in the construction of the line. The carrying out of this undertaking was unfortunately suspended, and in May 1860 Mr. Fitz-Gibbon was engaged by the Dun Mountain Copper Mining Co. of London and New Zealand, to proceed to that colony, and, in conjunction with Mr. Doyne, to select a route for the Company’s proposed mountain railway. This having been done he conducted the necessary surveys, constructed the railway, and worked it, as well as the Company’s mines, for more than a year after its completion. The cost of this line, 14 miles long, including permanent way and rolling-stock imported from England, did not exceed ~€2,000 per mile. The whole of the permanent way was laid in five months, which was a good performance considering the fact that the rails had to be hauled up to an elevation averaging 1,400 feet, and that more than one-half of them had to be bent to the required curves. When operations were commenced only two men, skilled in the business of plate-laying, were at hand, and others had to be taught as the work proceeded. This line fully answered the purpose for which it was intended, and during the first twelve months after its completion no less than 3,910 tons of ore were brought down to the port.

During Mr. Fitz-Gibbon’s stay in New Zealand he wrote and published several Engineering Papers, including one on The Comparative Costs of Railways and Macadamized Roads,” and another On a Description of Improved Railroad, suitable for the Colonies, and as Branch Lines or feeders to Main Trunk Railroads.”

In 1863 Mr. Fitz-Gibbon was invited to visit Queensland, to report on the first section of a system of railways which it was proposed to construct there. He arrived in Sydney in May of that year, and so energetically did he work that on the 9th of July he handed in, to the Minister of Lands and Works for the Colony, a most complete report, together with estimates for 174 miles of railway. In order to effect this Mr. Fitz-Gibbon had travelled more than 250 miles over a difficult country, carefully examining the leading features of the different routes by which it was possible to construct a line at a moderate cost from Ipswich to Toowoomba and Dalby, and from Toowoomba to Warwick. In this report Mr. Fitz-Gibbon recommended the adoption of a railway having a gauge of 3 feet 6 inches, and this recommendation he based on the knowledge that the Government wished to open up the country at a minimum capital outlay, and that it was a question of a cheap and light, as well as substantially constructed railway, for the colony, or no railway at all. Mr. Fitz-Gibbon fully stated his reasons for advising the adoption of the 3foot 6-inch gauge in the course of a discussion at the Institution. Much opposition was raised in the colony at the time against what was styled “ The Liliputian Railway,” but the Government determined, under the advice of their engineer, upon adopting the narrow-gauge, and on the 4th of September, 1863, the Governor’s assent was given to the Railway Bill.

Mr. Fitz-Gibbon was now appointed Engineer-in-chief of railways to the colony, and Sir Charles Fox and Sons, agents and consulting engineers to the Government in London. Within seven months, the whole of the surveys, setting out, plans, and sections of 130 miles of railway were completed, and this, notwithstanding an unusually wet season, which greatly impeded fieldwork. Of these 130 miles, 22 miles passed over a country unsurpassed in difficulties by any through which railway surveys have been carried in Australia. A full account of this railway was afterwards presented to the Institution by Mr. C. D. (now Sir Douglas) Fox. In addition to constructing this line, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon made the necessary surveys for an extension 172 miles in length.

In 1868, he returned to England, where he resided until his death, not taking any active part in the profession, to which he was so deeply attached ; but still interesting himself in engineering matters, and more especially in those connected with colonial railway enterprise, on which subject his opinion and advice were in great demand. He was undoubtedly one of the most energetic railway pioneers in the colonies, having been engaged on the first railways in Ceylon, New Zealand, and Queensland.

After his return to England, he took considerable interest in historical and archaeological matters, and in conjunction with his brother, the late Maurice Fitz-Gibbon, "The White Knight," he caused to be published in the Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, "Unpublished Geraldine Documents," treating of the Earls of Desmond, the Gherardini of Florence, and the septs of the Old Knight, and the White Knight, with their pedigrees. For this purpose they made numerous journeys to Geraldine localities, explored the arcana of Prerogative Courts, and met the heavy outlay attendant on the transcription of documents.

Throughout his professional career, as also in private life, Mr. Fitz-Gibbon was distinguished for his upright conduct, sound judgment, and great decision of character, as well as for his good-natured and genial manner, which won him the esteem and regard of all who came in contact with him. He was most kind and considerate to his staff and to his workmen, and solicitous for their comfort and welfare. He was fond of music and poetry, and had, like most of his countrymen, a keen sense of humour.

Mr. Fitz-Gibbon was elected a Member of the Institution on the 9th of January, 1866.



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