The Bytown Railway Society’s “Dirty Hands Club” lost a valued and irreplaceable member with the untimely passing of Ross Robinson on the evening of October 9, 2020 following a brief illness.
Ross was an incredible person. He was born in Ottawa on May 23, 1936 during the Great Depression, growing up in the Glebe neighbourhood, not far from what were then Canadian National’s main freight yards which is now the route of Highway 417 (“Queensway”) across Ottawa.
Following high school, Ross attended Ryerson Polytechnic School and began his full-time working career with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited.
Ross was a mechanical genius, as well as being an outstanding craftsman with an uncanny ability and knowledge of a variety of disciplines. This knowledge helped him to understand complex devices, regardless of their age, shape or form. Whether he was fixing a clock, tuning a piano, restoring a pipe organ or preserving railway artifacts, Ross was equally comfortable.
Subsequent to working at AECL, he was employed in building management with Carleton University and went on from there to become self-employed in the building construction and renovation business.
Ross was a keen railway enthusiast with an appreciation for music, primarily theatre organ music and for many years was a key participant in the former Ottawa Valley Theatre Organ Society.
With respect to railways, Ross was able to apply his numerous skills on a number of restoration projects in both Canada and the United States. In the latter instance, Ross and his late wife Gee made it a habit to spend winters in San Diego, California, where Ross became an active member of the Pacific South West Railway Museum, involved in both equipment restoration and operation.
Ross spent many years with what is now the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario in Smiths Fall. On the grounds of the museum can be found a number of examples of his tireless restoration efforts including the former Canadian Northern passenger station which was on the verge of collapse until he came on the scene, a former duplex section dwelling, a restored flag stop from the tiny community of Nolans, located between Smiths Falls and Ottawa on VIA Rail’s Smiths Falls Subdivision, to name just a few examples of his work there. He even found the time to restore ex-Grand Trunk Western Van No. 77137, now on display at the Elgin County Railway Museum in St. Thomas, Ontario.
Ross was most recently an active member of the BRS’s “Dirty Hands Club.” He was both a craftsman, a coach, a mentor and, as some would have it, the ultimate “Jedi Master”. He was as equally comfortable with a Mig Welder as he was with a table saw or router. He led the charge on the restoration of Bytown’s ex-Canadian National First Class Coach No. 4977; was involved in a number of outshoppings of Bytown’s ex-Canadian Pacific Van No. 436436 including the fabrication of its end ladders and roof walk as well as the production of new windows. He played a key role in the current work on the van which has led to the installation new insulation, siding and a roofing membrane applied to. He was also involved in the restoration of the cab of ex-Canadian Pacific Royal Hudson No. 2858, making up a variety of patterns in his basement workshop for missing castings as well as coming up with an ingenious, geometry-defying, method of fabricating a new sheet metal housing for the locomotive’s brake stand. He was built the cab windows used in the cosmetic restoration of ex-Canadian National 4-8-4 No. 6200 in addition to cab windows for the cosmetic restoration of several steam locomotives in the United States. The majority of this work took place in the confines of his small basement workshop in old Ottawa South.
I first met Ross many years ago during a special work bee in Smiths Falls where we spent the day laying track for a couple of short sidings and I was certainly impressed. Our paths did not cross that much until about 15-years ago when my wife and I became “empty nesters” and there was a little more time to spend with groups like the “Dirty Hands Club.”
Although I have a modicum of technical knowledge, it really improved under Ross’ guidance and mentorship. His ability to teach, to demonstrate and his ability to help one break a complex procedure into simple steps was amazing. His level of technical knowledge and his recall of events and facts was incredible.
With the onset of my retirement, he had me involved with several of his “capers”, primarily the dispersal of the assets of the Ottawa Valley Theatre Organ Society, a project that involved among other things, the dismantling and removal of a theatre organ located in the historic O’Brien Theatre in the upper Ottawa Valley community of Renfrew. Ross brought me in to help him measure up the components so that he could build shipping crates in his basement work shop. That job led to myself and several DHC members being “conscripted” to help dismantle the organ into several truck loads which were destined for a yet to be built music museum in western Ontario. Throughout this whole endeavour, I was amazed at what effort it had taken Ross to install the organ in the theatre in the first place and then by his encyclopedic knowledge of each and every part, including the amazing circuitry that is in such devices.
A lot of people in the railway preservation and restoration world have been touched by Ross over the years and he has left us with a heavy responsibility: to carry on his legacy and his work. Rest in peace.
Salut Ross; may you and Gee have happiness in eternity.
Link to Ross' formal obituary published in the Ottawa Citizen, October 17th, 2020