A brother of John Johnston of New York, Robert also emigrated to America. This is his story.

Robert Johnston, Haugh of Urr and New Jersey

Robert Johnston, son of John Johnston of Millbank [Haugh of Urr], was born on July 7, 1804, and as a boy attended the Dumfries School. When his brother John (of New York) visited Scotland in 1832, he saw Robert for the first time, as the latter had been born after his departure for the New World.

When his brother Alexander came to Charleston in 1835 he spoke of Robert as having previously been in business (cotton, etc.) in Augusta and Savannah, making his home in the former place. He afterwards went to Richmond, Virginia, where he did "a large dry goods business under the firm name of Triplett & Johnston. Mr. Johnston retired from that firm, and came in 1837 to New York and formed with Silas Wood and Francis Burritt the firm of Wood, Johnston & Burritt. The new house took all the dry goods business formerly done by Boorman, Johnston & Co., for some years and did the largest business in the city." (Old Merchants of New York.) According to the directories they were "commission merchants" and "importers." John Johnston had provided this position for his brother, and according to his will in 1841, "assigned to him, up to this time, my one-tenth of the profits of said Co-partnership."

In October 1843 Robert, with Mr. Meldrum (formerly of Dundee) "leased two lots at Paterson, New Jersey, belonging to the estate of Lorillard" and commenced to erect thereon a factory for the "manufacture of Hemp and Flax," Mr. Meldrum purchasing the machinery for it in Dundee. This was the modest beginning of the "Dolphin Mills." Robert and Alexander Johnston and Francis Burritt seem to have been the only partners, although John Johnston offered a loan of $20,000. Burritt & Johnston (Alexander) were agents for selling the goods of the factory, and it is evident from his letters that John T. Johnston also became an agent for the Dolphin upon his return from Europe in the summer of 1845, corresponding with customers, ordering machinery, etc. Mr. Meldrum suggested in 1847 that the roof of the mill be raised, giving another story, and that heckles be put in so that they might heckle their own tow and do it by hand. There was great difficulty in finding anyone who knew how to make the steel heckle pins, and having found such a man in Philadelphia, it was difficult to get him to finish them, as he was drunk most of the time! They were also hampered by a "short strike" among the mill hands, who wished that the mills be heated in winter!

Mindful of his own good fortune in the New World, Robert in speaking of his brothers Samuel and James says in a letter to his brother John in 1843, "I still think it would be better for these chaps to come out and settle down in the West somewhere and I have lately had some indirect correspondence through a friend with a view of buying a section (320 acres) in Ohio near Perrysburg, which can be done at $1.25 to $1.75 per acre comprising prairie and wood, with a view of bringing them out." This idea seems, however, to have come to naught.

When Robert Johnston began to build the mills in 1844, he moved his residence to Paterson, New Jersey, and his brother Alexander died at his house there in 1845. O" June 28, 1848, St. Paul's Episcopal Church was destroyed by fire, and the Paterson newspaper gives the following account of the death of Robert Johnston at that time.

". . . A gloom was spread over our town when it was announced that a life had been lost during the conflagration. Mr. Robert Johnston, late of the firm of Wood, Johnston & Burritt, of New York, was killed in the church. He, with several others, was endeavouring to remove the organ from the gallery while the roof was on fire above them. The flames had been progressing under the roof for some time, and to all appearance inside, there was no danger in the work in which they were engaged. But the fire doubtless burnt off the support of the ceiling, and let the whole mass of timbers and mortar down to the body of the church below. Those in the gallery were all more or less injured by the fall of the ceiling. Mr. Johnston and a man named Decker (as we learn) were near each other at the time of the accident, and Mr. Decker says the same heap of materials knocked both down. He was stunned by the blow, and on recovering, found himself below the mass, almost roasting with the heat. Releasing himself from his position he ran to the stairway, and finding it impassable by reason of the flames, he returned to the gallery and leaped to the floor below, and thence escaped from the rear of the building. — We have no doubt, judging from all the circumstances, that the fall of the ceiling proved fatal to Mr. Johnston at once. The weight of mortar was great; and falling from the height of the ceiling, with the additional weight of timbers or wood work, on which the plaster was laid, in all probability it struck him lifeless on the spot. But a very small portion of his remains could be found after the fire."

He was interred in his brother John's vault at Greenwood. — Mrs. Emily de Forest.


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