Crawford, Robert (1831–1914), civil engineer, was born 2 June 1831 at Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, the fourth child of Samuel Crawford, a solicitor, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of John Duncan of Dublin. He had two brothers and one sister. Crawford was educated at the Rev. Robert Wray's school in Ballyshannon. He entered TCD in 1847 and was awarded a diploma in engineering in 1851, coming first in the class; he graduated BA in 1852. Before setting sail from Liverpool for New York he undertook a geological survey of Donegal. He travelled to Montreal and worked there for four years, mainly on railways. He joined the major international contractors Peto, Brassey & Betts in 1854 and was employed by them for many years in the UK, Europe, and South America. On 27 September 1854 he was appointed professor of road and railway engineering at McGill College, Montreal, while still working for the contractors. A short time afterwards the company offered him a job in Austria on the Empress Railway. Although he regretted leaving McGill after only a few months, the position was very attractive, and for the next six years he worked in many European countries, principally on railways. In 1857 he spent six months in Paris and attended lectures at the École des Ponts et Chaussées and École des Mines.
Crawford made his first journey to South America in 1863, where he took charge of the construction of the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway. The press described this as the most successful yet known on the South American continent. In 1866 he returned to Europe, working first on waterworks and canals in France and then on the London Metropolitan Railway. In 1871 he was appointed by Waring Bros of London to make a survey from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso for a transandine railway. The work was initially held up by yellow fever in Buenos Aires but eventually Crawford and his staff set off across the Andes. He described his experience in his book Across the Pampas and the Andes (1883). It was a hazardous journey, mainly because of the threat of attacks by Native peoples, and his party was therefore accompanied by troops. The Buenos Ayres Standard described it as ‘one of the most remarkable expeditions of the age’ (5 Oct. 1871). He submitted the survey and plans to the government on 4 September 1872 and was preparing to sail home when he received an offer from Waring Bros to be chief engineer on further railway projects in South America, including the Central Uruguay line from Montevideo to Paso de los Toros. He moved to London in September 1874 and worked in England and Wales until he returned to Ireland to live in Donegal in 1877.
In 1881 Crawford was appointed professor of engineering at TCD. He was awarded an honorary MAI (master in engineering) in 1883. The public orator speaking in Latin, said at the conferring: ‘He has a right to recall the words of the Trojan Chief, “What region on earth is not full of our labour?” Throughout the whole world, in Canada, to wit, in Spanish America, in Germany, over his iron roads, the iron horse, so called, amid steam and clanking, speeds panting on. In his case too, his own achievements are his glory.’ Crawford was cheered heartily by the students. He was a very successful professor but before long his voice failed; when he wanted to resign in 1887 the board persuaded him to take a year's leave of absence to see if he would recover but he did not.
During his time in Ireland, Crawford was engaged in many works as consultant, umpire, and arbitrator, and was an expert witness in court cases. His work was mainly concerned with fisheries, waterworks, and harbours. After he resigned from the chair of engineering he went back to South America in 1888 and took charge of the construction of the Central Uruguay Railway, Northern Extension, which ran for 180 miles from Paso de los Toros to Rivera on the Brazilian border. His book South American sketches (1888) is based on the time he spent in Uruguay. He returned to Ballyshannon in 1892 and lived there until his death on 31 May 1914.
During his career Crawford worked in eighteen countries, in addition to England and Ireland. Most of his work was on railways and he was involved in the construction of about 8,000 miles of track. He was chief engineer for twelve lines which covered about 550 miles. About three-quarters of his work was for contractors, the remainder for governments and companies. Apart from railways, he worked mainly in hydraulic engineering, including canals, drainage, harbours, and waterworks.
In addition to the two books mentioned above, he also wrote Reminiscences of foreign travel (1888). His publications were well received by both the critics and readers. He translated Captain Cuellar's narrative of the Spanish armada and of his wanderings and adventures in Ireland (1897) from the Spanish, his version of which was chosen over two others when the Belfast Educational and Historical Association wished to reprint the work in 1988 (because it was plain, accurate, readable, and informative).
In 1856 Crawford married Emily Sarah Crawford (d.1870), daughter of James Crawford MD of Montreal, with whom he had six sons and four daughters. In 1876 he married Anna (d.1880), daughter of Thomas Troubridge Stubbs of Dublin, with whom he had four sons. Crawford was awarded an MA in 1869 by the University of Dublin, and was elected MICEI (1860), MICE (1879), and MRIA (1886). He was high sheriff of Co. Donegal in 1894 and was appointed a JP in 1879.