Barton, James (1826–1913), civil engineer, was born in 1826 in Dublin, eldest of eight children of John Barton, merchant and governor of the Bank of Ireland, and Jane Barton (née Culley). In 1843 he was one of the first two graduates to qualify with a diploma from the newly established school of engineering in TCD under Professor Sir John Macneill (qv), an eminent railway engineer, who first employed him in Co. Wicklow. He was appointed resident engineer of the Dundalk & Enniskillen Railway before joining the Belfast Junction Railway in 1849 (his father accordingly resigned a directorship in the company). Barton ‘took charge of the entire line’ (Tempest's Dundalk Annual, 50) and directed the resident engineers. Macneill, who was engineer-in-chief, had in 1845 proposed to cross the River Boyne at Drogheda by a viaduct of fifteen masonry arches and a three-span lattice-girder bridge in order to create a continuous line from Dublin to Belfast. After intensive investigation and trials, Barton modified Macneill's design of the bridge; ‘every part of the new design was now prepared by me’ (ibid., 51) and accepted by Macneill and the railway company. Work began in 1851; after the bankruptcy of the contractor in 1853, Barton became responsible for the entire undertaking, which was opened for traffic in April 1855. One of the finest bridges in Ireland, this engineering feat aroused great admiration and interest and Barton gave a paper in London to the Institution of Civil Engineers, ‘On the economic distribution of materials in the sides, or vertical portion of wrought-iron beams’ (Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers, xiv (24 Apr. 1855), 443–90), which stimulated four evenings of discussion. The principle of multi-lattice construction in wrought iron was first applied on a large scale in the Boyne viaduct; its central span of 264 ft (80.47 m) was probably the largest in the world for that type of bridge. It represented an increased understanding of the structural properties of wrought iron, and stimulated more precise computation of the stresses in structural components. Capable of carrying far heavier loads than those for which it was designed, it was replaced only in 1932.
In 1857 before a select committee of the house of commons, Professor J. A. Galbraith (qv) of the engineering school of TCD paid tribute to Barton's work, describing the Boyne viaduct as one of the most important engineering works in Ireland, an evaluation that provoked Macneill into correspondence with Galbraith, asserting that he alone was responsible for the design. Barton, claiming that ‘the task of self-vindication is a most unpleasing one’ (Tempest's Dundalk Annual, 49), furnished Galbraith with a detailed history of the project, referred him to railway company documents, and convinced Galbraith that his statement before the commons committee was valid. A heated controversy ensued between Barton and Macneill, mainly through the medium of the Dublin and Belfast newspapers; Macneill then proceeded to write Boyne Bridge: its history as originally designed and constructed by Sir John Macneill (1860). Barton, who has been credited with the detailed design of the bridge, replaced Macneill as the company's consultant (1861–4, 1866, 1870).
Barton's career coincided with a period of great railway construction. In 1863 he established his consultancy offices in the Corn Exchange Buildings in Dundalk, employing twelve apprentices and assistants. In 1864 he and Sir John Hawkshaw (1811–91) proposed a scheme (which was not adopted) to link all Dublin city rail termini, which involved a viaduct over Upper Sackville (O' Connell) St. and a Liffey bridge carrying a nine-track station at an estimated cost of £866,000. A man of ‘marvellous energy and vigour of mind’ (Ir. Builder (1 February 1913), 91), he pioneered Irish railway construction and development, designing and superintending many railways including Derry Central, Clogher Valley (1883–1913), where he built a 3 ft (.91 m) gauge tramway (opened 1887), the Banbridge extension, and Donegal light railways.
An engineer of wide interests and great versatility, he also gained a reputation as a marine engineer. As civil engineer of the Dundalk & Enniskillen Railway (later renamed the Irish North Western Railway Company), he carried out work in Carlingford Lough, a major engineering project, which included the creation of a harbour of refuge by deepening the Carlingford bar, and ingeniously designing and constructing docks for combined passenger, goods, and cattle traffic; other facilities included a two-mile-long (3.2 km) water-supply pipe and a railway station and hotel at Greenore, Co. Louth. He described his work in ‘Carlingford Lough and Greenore’ (Mins Proc. Inst. Civil Engs, xliv (8 February 1876), 131–50). Greenore port, which was used for the cross-channel service to Holyhead, was opened in April 1873 with a ceremony attended by the lord lieutenant and 800 guests. Barton also surveyed the route from Dundalk to Greenore (crossing the Castletown river and the Ballymascanlan estuary via two multi-span lattice-girder cast-iron viaducts each 600 ft (183 m) long) and the route – of great beauty – from Greenore to Newry. He improved the port of Newry by extensive dredging operations between the Newry Canal and Warrenpoint. An enthusiast for a channel tunnel between Ireland and Scotland, he first made suggestions in 1890; he subsequently undertook geological investigations and in 1901 made detailed proposals for a twenty-five-mile (40 km) sea tunnel from Island Magee in Co. Antrim to the Scottish coast east of Stranraer, which he described in a paper given to the International Engineering Conference in Glasgow (1901). Advocating its construction on economic and political grounds, he showed that there was no insuperable engineering problem, although the absence of capital hindered further development. Elected a member of the Civil Institution of Engineers, London (1853), he was a council member (1898–1903) and was awarded the institution's Telford medal. He retired in 1909.
An energetic member of his church, he staunchly supported the YMCA and local protestant associations. He was one of the founders of the Irish Evangelisation Society, and conducted services in the meeting house in Wellington Place, Dundalk. During the protestant revival of 1859, he was reprimanded for distributing religious tracts while on company business and for circulating leaflets to the work force, alleged to be offensive to catholics. Satirised in the Dundalk Democrat with articles titled ‘Barton's soupers tracts’ and ‘Souper engineer in a fix’, he was accused of undermining the faith of the poor labourers on the railway.
In 1862 Barton purchased thirty-four acres of land at Farrendreg, where he built Farndreg House, a mansion with landscaped gardens overlooking Dundalk Bay. He died there 13 January 1913 and is buried in St Nicholas's churchyard, Dundalk, beside his first wife and five of his children, who predeceased him. He married (1849) Catherine Frances Golding (d. 1863); they had five sons and two daughters. Their eldest son, Sir John George Barton (qv), engineer and surveyor, worked with his father on the Clogher Valley Railway from its inauguration in 1883 until 1892. Edward Golding Barton (1852–1913), member of the ICE (1884), served his pupilage under his father and was later resident engineer on several railways in the north of Ireland before being appointed resident engineer on the Bengal–Nagpur Railway; on its completion he became district engineer in charge of public works at Darbhanga, Bengal; he died there in January 1913. Mary Georgina Barton (qv), their youngest daughter, earned a reputation as a landscape-painter. Barton married secondly (1870) a vicar's daughter, Mary Honoria Elizabeth Hewson; of their nine children only six survived.