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Captain James A Robinson: The Workingman’s Candidate

February 13, 2014

Captain James A RobinsonJames Alexander Robinson (1833-1904) was a blacksmith at Yale BC, elected member of the first British Columbia provincial legislature, steamboat owner and master mariner, city clerk and captain of the snagboat Samson.

JA Robinson was born in Quebec on July 25, 1833.  He came out to California and joined in the gold rush to British Columbia in 1858.   After the excitement he took up his trade as a blacksmith, remaining in the Yale district, where “Jim Robinson’s” was a familiar shop on the old Cariboo road.
On September 9, 1871 he was married at Yale to 19-year old Ada Catherine Ward, born in China, Maine, USA.
Soon after taking his marriage vows, James Robinson threw his hat into the ring of the first general election in the new Province of British Columbia, contesting the three-member constituency of Yale.  In November 1871,  Robinson was elected by a show of 35 hands raised in his favor,  the second highest number.1872 09 02 Robinson declines federal nomination
In 1872 some supporters who thought that James Robinson, MPP would also make a fine MP, nominated him to contest the federal election.  He declined, being opposed to the practice of members sitting in both houses and not wanting to give up his seat in the legislature.  His stand was applauded in the press: “There is no double-shuffling in Mr. Robinson’s political creed.”
(The practice of sitting in both houses was outlawed in 1873.)


Robinson land at Burton's PrairieAfter selling his blacksmithing business, Robinson in  1873 pre-empted a quarter section of land at Burton’s Prairie  and the next year applied for a total of  1500 acres.

It was a low-lying land, subject to inundation during times of high-water, but mainly natural pasture and suitable for grazing cattle.

Open location on Google Map, right.

In 1874, James Robinson entered into a partnership with engineer Christopher Lee to build and operate a steamboat.  The hull was constructed by Henry Maloney at Burrard Inlet and launched in August.  Perhaps befitting a boat built by a machinist, Chris Lee, and a blacksmith, Jim Robinson, the steamer Ada was reported to be sturdy craft

“She is, without exception, the staunchest vessel that ever floated on these waters. Everything is constructed on the strongest principle, and all eventualities have been carefully calculated. Strength and resistance seems to have been the prevailing thought of the builder, Mr Maloney, and the proprietors Messrs Lee & Robinson.”


The sternwheeler Ada ran mainly on Fraser River, servicing the outlying farm settlements of the lower valley. With most stops made without the benefit of wharves, the boat had to withstand riverbank landings, besides scraping over rocky bars and fending off the numerous large trees carried downriver by the current of the Fraser.
According to information in the Hatzic community plan,  Robinson had acquired his land at Burton’s Prairie for cattle range and,

“During the freshet he navigated his steamer up Hatzic Slough to load livestock.”

In 1875 Robinson ran again in the second general election for the provincial legislature, the first by secret ballot.  Running as an independent, but tagged as supporting the government, he finished second last out of seven candidates. Of the three incumbents only one was returned, with opposition candidates taking the other two seats.

In 1878 Robinson was nominated again to run for a seat in the Dominion House of Commons, representing New Westminster. An independent thinker running as a Liberal, the Mainland Guardian praised his practical nature, good sense and trustworthiness, dubbing him “the workingman’s candidate.”

Robinson’s  platform included support for a Fraser valley route for the national railway to the coast,  protection of  fish stocks and establishment of a fish hatchery, and the institution of direct mail service to New Westminster by steamer from San Francisco and Puget Sound. Among more parochial issues,  he advocated “an overland mail from New Westminster, touching at Mud Bay, Langley Prairie, Matsqui, and the head of Sumass Lake.”
Robinson was defeated by the Tory candidate Thomas R McInnes.

During the year 1879 Captain Robinson was operating the Ada on runs from New Westminster to Nanaimo, touching at North Arm settlements.  However, in February 1880, Robinson’s interest in the Ada was advertised for sale by order of the Sheriff, arising out of an action Stevenson vs. Robinson.
The outcome appears to have been a partnership with Angus C Fraser, which was dissolved in July when Robinson sold his interest to a brother of Jeremiah Rogers, the pioneer logger on English Bay.  Captain William Rogers put the Ada on runs from the  Vancouver Island to the mainland.

In 1881, by census return, the Robinson’s were living at New Westminster.  James and Ada had increased their family to four children, with Ada’s father EW Ward also residing with them.

steamer Robert DunsmuirIn 1883 the old Robinson & Lee workhorse vessel Ada, since operated by Captain William Rogers, was scrapped and the engines removed and placed in Roger’s new steamer, the Robert Dunsmuir.

The procedure, eminently practical in nature, took on a ceremonial air. First, the Ada towed the new hull of the Robert Dunsmuir, built at New Westminster,  to Victoria. There the engines of the Ada were removed and put into the Robert Dunsmuir. Then the Robert Dunsmuir towed the empty hull of the Ada back to New Westminster.

Photo at right, from the Vancouver Archives, shows the Robert Dunsmuir, equipped with Robinson & Lee’s old machinery,  in later days undergoing repairs to her hull  at English Bay.

In another line of work, JA Robinson served New Westminster city council as clerk in the years 1886-1888.

Robinson was a member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW)  lodge, organized at New Westminster in 1880.  In 1889 Robinson was holding the office of “Receiver.”

Following the death of Captain Angus Grant in 1889,  James Robinson was the second appointed master of the snagboat Samson. Grant had been in charge of the Dominion vessel since it was put into service in 1884 and also held the charter for the Brownsville ferry, K de K.
In  June of 1893 it was reported that Captain Robinson had broken six of his ribs “by falling from a gang plank to the guard of the steamer Samson.”
Captain Jim Robinson remained in charge of the Samson until his retirement.

James A Robinson died on January 28, 1904 and was interred in the Masonic cemetery at New Westminster. The pallbearers at his funeral were RJ Rickman, WH Keary, John Calbick, JA Lee, TS Annandale and Charles Welsh, all old friends.

A mechanic’s monument

Notices of the passing of James Robinson provided a brief summary of his career, but an editorial in the Mainland Guardian from 1878 makes a fitting obituary:

“Nature is never partial; she places in the cranium of a mechanic as much intellect as she does in that of the scion of nobility, and frequently a great deal more. This is as it should be, because the mechanic turns it to profitable account, in the ten thousand articles which his busy hands produce for the world’s happiness or convenience.
Capt. Robinson has wrought at his anvil, or worked on his farm to such good purpose, that he has, so to speak, constructed his own career.
Endowed with a fair share of intelligence, he has derived from his experience a clearer knowledge of what is best calculated for the welfare of his fellow citizens, than those who have only floated on the surface of society; and better than all the rest, he has learned to see men for their honorable dealings with their fellow citizens, and to look upon honesty as a commendable virtue. ”


The snagboat Samson,  performing the essential service of keeping the Fraser open to navigation, continued to operate until 1905 when it was replaced with a new vessel of the same name.

Ada C Robinson, widow of James Alexander Robinson,  spent her last years at Victoria, where she died August 17, 1942 at the age of 91.

The 1881 census gives James Robinson’s birthplace as Ontario. His marriage certificate states he was born in Drummondville. A newspaper obituary gives his birthplace as Stanstead, Quebec.

The 1901 census recorded Ada Robinson’s birthday as February 27, 1852  and on her death record it is February 26, 1852.

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