Robert Watchorn and Alfreton, Derbyshire, England

Robert Watchorn of Alfreton

Robert Watchorn of Alfreton 1848-1944

Alfreton and Early Life

A frequently asked question by visitors is why is the Alfreton Masonic Temple named the Abraham Lincoln Library? The answer lies in the remarkable life of, Robert Watchorn. Born into the working class of Alfreton, his father being John Watchorn, himself a immigrant from Ireland, and also a Coal Miner.

Robert was born on 5th Apr 1858, and the mornings in his hometown of Alfreton, England, were filled with the singing of birds and the sounds of church bells echoing across a beautiful, open sky. The sounds, he said, “touched the inner recesses of my soul.” He enjoyed six years of school until he entered the work force at age 11. Then his life changed from the studies he enjoyed to 12-hour days in the coal mines, earning one shilling, a day.

“It was five o’clock on an April morning, 1869, that I was called to get ready for work,” Robert Watchorn, wrote in his autobiography. “My mother’s heart was sad, and her grief intense, as she released me from the vise-like grip of her arms in order that I might put my resolution into practical effect.”

Until he was 21, Watchorn dutifully handed over his pay envelope to his mother. “The first pay envelope that I received after April 5, 1879 (his 21st birthday), I opened in my mother’s presence, and asked her how much of it I should pay her for my week’s board.” His mother left it to his discretion, telling him she wished she didn’t need his money at all. He struck a deal with her to accept the customary price for boarding, and then split the remainder of his pay between them.

In the early part of May the following year, Watchorn immigrated to the United States with about $10 in his pocket. In a 1905 interview with J. Herbert Welch for Success Magazine, Watchorn described his first act upon landing.

Watchorn’s first purchase was a piece of pie that cost 10 cents. He paid with a half dollar.

“Where’s my change?” he asked after finishing the pie.

“Change?!” exclaimed the pie man. “There ain’t no change. What did ya expect for 10 cents?”

“But I gave you a good deal more than that,” Watchorn replied.

“More nothin’. Chase yourself, or I’ll call a cop.”

The pie man did call a police officer, who hustled Watchorn along without his change.

“I’ve had many hard knocks,” Watchorn said in the interview. “But this one, coming when I was expecting to have the right hand of fellowship held out to me, was one of the hardest of all. It braced me, however, like a dash of cold water. It tightened my determination to win out, to overcome the odds which, I realized for the first time, must be faced by a friendless alien. More than this, I then and there made up my mind that, when I had achieved a position in the United States, I would try to do something for helpless immigrants.”

About 18 months later, Watchorn sent for his family to come to America.

As a new American, an immigrant just like his father before him, he quickly became fascinated with the dramatic story of Abraham Lincoln, who had been martyred at the moment of his greatest triumph, just 15 years before. Watchorn saw in Lincoln the personification of the “American dream,” thwat-titlee ability to improve your circumstances if you are willing to study hard, work diligently, and apply yourself. Lincoln himself labeled this phenomenon “the right to rise.”

United States Immigration Service and Work Life

Watchorn’s father joined him working in a coal mine after his arrival. With his family settled in Pennsylvania, Watchorn had decided to make a return trip to Liverpool and accept an offer of schooling there. Just as he stepped off the steamer and onto the dock, Watchorn was given a cablegram announcing his father had been killed in a mine accident. He immediately returned to become the sole supporter of his mother and younger siblings.

Watchorn developed strong views about labor conditions and was not shy about expressing them. This earned him a presidency in the National Trades Assembly #135 Knights of Labor. Two years later, he became the first secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers of America.

“That was a turning point in my life,” he wrote. “I made a greatly enlarged circle of friends and acquaintances and, best of all, it was there that I met my future wife, the dearest and most delightful of companions. At the time I write these lines, she has for 40 years been the apple of my eye and for 38 years she has been my wife. During all that time, she has been the very essence of my endeavors, the consummation of my achievements, the sharer of my disappointments, the helper of the helpers, and the sweetest of mothers to our children, Robert and Ewart. That unexpected and not wholly undreaded election at Cleveland, in that far-away day in September, 1888, was truly a great day for me.”


Watchorn had many missions in his life. His first was to provide and care for his family, especially after the death of his father. His second was to improve labor conditions, which he worked toward in his position with the United Mine Workers of America.

“Bearing official responsibility in a labor union is not exactly lying on a bed of roses,” he wrote. “These were the days when there was no appreciation of the terrible death rate such employment occasioned, no semblance of first aid for the injured, no hospitals within a day’s journey, no thought of the anguish of the wives and mothers whose daily experience it was to live in strained anxiety for the future. And the meager recompense for such labor was utterly inadequate to provide the toiler returning from his long grueling hours of labor in the deep and widely extended recesses of the earth with such sustenance as fair play could afford, as health demanded, and as a man needed for a few simple pleasures.”

About six months before he was scheduled to retire, a coal mining accident had trapped union workers. Watchorn went to the scene, known as the Hill Farm mine.

“On my arrival at the scene of the disaster,” he wrote, “I was overwhelmed with grief by the sight of the frantically stricken wives and children of the imprisoned victims. Flames, leaping high in the air, belched in great volume from the mouth of the mine.”

Watchorn was one of three men who tried to save lives in the mine. He said the ordeal “so seriously impaired my health” that he was convinced to terminate his connection with the union. He was later appointed by Robert Emory Pattison, governor of Pennsylvania, as the first chief factory inspector of that state. His job was to remedy sweatshop conditions, he wrote, for the workers of the period. He was instrumental in the 1893 passage of the Factory Inspection Bill there.

Watchorn served in political positions, but it was one of his important missions to fulfill the pledge he made to himself when he arrived in the United States to help immigrants when he could. In 1895, he left state service and became a United States immigration inspector. One year later, he was promoted to supervising inspector general of the national immigration service. In 1898, Watchorn was appointed by President William McKinley as the first commissioner of immigration for the Canadian-American border.

He was summoned from his post in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt and appointed to the post of commissioner of immigration at the Port of New York, headquartered at Ellis Island.

“I hope I may be pardoned,” he wrote, “for mentioning the thrill of pride and elation that came surging into my heart as I stood in my official quarters surrounded by the staff and the heads of departments, including the chief medical officer and his staff, as well as architects, attorneys, concessionaires and representatives of the press as witnesses to my assuming the oath of office.”

During a Success Magazine interview, which took place in his office at Ellis Island, the discussion was interrupted when a Russian immigrant who had been ordered to be deported was brought in to ask for an appeal. Watchorn stopped the interview to attend to making a decision about his fate.

He asked why the immigrant had been excluded, and found out he had no money. He questioned if the man had a trade, and learned he was a tinsmith who earned 40 rubles each month in Russia. He had a good record and was healthy. Watchorn believed he should be allowed to land and made the recommendation.

“An alien who arrives without money,” he said in the interview, “may be excluded on the ground that he is likely to become a public charge, but in my opinion, it is absurd to bar him for lack of money alone. We have to use discretion in these cases. The man just impressed me as a worker.”

“Congress has erected barriers only against immigrants who are found to be criminal or immoral, unsound of body or mind, incompetent, or decrepit from age, and those coming in violation of the contract labor law. When the population of this country reaches one hundred and fifty million, we shall be able to assimilate, because of the increased requirements of the people. If of the right sort, they will not do this nation harm, but good.”

Notes found among Watchorn’s papers revealed the statement: “Objection to entry into the United States should be made solely on the ground of personal or individual inadmissibility, and never on the basis of nationality, race or creed.”

Watchorn worked to improve prevention of immigrant exploitation and abuses. He also improved the facilities at Ellis Island. But his efforts were controversial, and eventually led to a failed confirmation for a second term under President William Howard Taft. In 1909, Watchorn turned to the business world, accepting an offer from Lyman Stewart, president of the Union Oil Co. of California, to become treasurer, a director of the company and assistant to the president.

He later owned Watchorn Petroleum and Alma Oil Co. among other companies, and found his good fortune there.  “I believe that what has helped me most,” Watchorn said in an interview, “has been my aim to do one thing at a time, and so well that any other man will find it extremely difficult to do it better ` In the words of St. Paul – Rthis one thing I do.’ ”

Watchorn shared his admiration for Lincoln with his only surviving child. A frequent visitor with his parents to Europe, Emory was trapped in Germany for a brief period of time in 1914 when the conflict that would become known as the Great War broke out. Sharing his father’s affinity for Great Britain, the young Watchorn looked forward to American involvement in the war. In the summer of 1916, he completed officers’ training at Monterey, CA. When President Woodrow Wilson convinced Congress to declare war on Germany in April of 1917 “in order to make the world safe for democracy,” Emory Ewart volunteered for the US Army Air Service. After completing ground training at Berkeley, CA, he sailed aboard the SS Aquitania for Europe. Before entraining for his final destination in Italy, he was able to enjoy a ten-day leave in Paris. In a letter later published in the LA Times, he wrote, “Paris is like the smile on the face of the badly wounded.”

Alma J Watchorn Park Alfreton Dedication

Alma J Watchorn Park Alfreton Dedication

The Italian Front in World War I witnessed incredible suffering. After three years of bloody trench warfare with Germany and Austria, Italy was on the verge of suing for peace. Italy’s allies, Great Britain,

France, and the United States, rushed in reinforcements to bolster Italian morale. Included among these reinforcements was a contingent of several hundred American pilot trainees, under the command of then congressman, later New York mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. Although her army was not enjoying much success, Italy’s strategic aviation was widely regarded as being the best in the world in 1917. In particular, the tri-motor Caproni biplane bomber was highly respected. The United States, by comparison, had no military aviation and despite expending millions of dollars, not a single American-produced aircraft would see service in the war. What America did have was tens of thousands of eager volunteers, including twenty-one year-old Emory Ewart Watchorn.

Emory Ewart Watchorn

Emory Ewart Watchorn


After months of flight training in Foggia, Lt. Watchorn received his gold Royal Italian Air Force wings in the summer of 1918 and was assigned to the 13th Aero Squadron. Based in Padua, Lt. Watchorn and his Italian comrades flew day and night bombing missions against Austrian airfields, railroad yards, and troop concentrations. On a night mission, Lt. Watchorn’s center engine was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He would receive a commendation for coolly executing a perfect emergency landing, saving his crew and the plane. The arduous flying conditions, open cockpits, and extreme cold took a toll on his health. Soon after Armistice Day, he contracted a severe case of pneumonia. He recovered, however, and returned to California in triumph. Two years later, a recurrence of his health problems developed into blood-poisoning. After a two month struggle, Emory Ewart died at the age of 25 on July 10, 1921. Robert and Alma were devastated by the loss of their only surviving child and always felt that his death was a direct result of his service to his country.

Watchorn always did his best, whether in service to the government or in his private business endeavors. His success is partly evident in what he left behind, mostly as a memorial to his son Emory Ewart Watchorn, who died at age 26 in 1921.

Robert Watchorns Gift to Alfreton

Robert Watchorns Gift to Alfreton

He put his son’s estate to use in memorializing him. Memorials included an organ at First Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, choir stalls in the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles, chimes in the tower of First Methodist Episcopal Church of Redlands and a duplicate set of chimes installed in the tower of the Protestant Episcopal Church at La Crescenta.

He and Emory shared an interest in learning about Lincoln. That synthesized in Watchorn’s mind that the perfect memorial for his son was to build this shrine in Redlands.

Watchorn had fallen in love with Redlands when he visited in 1926 and made it his permanent residence in 1930. He felt all Californians should benefit from a shrine, and believed that someday Redlands would be the center of a future megalopolis spanning from Los Angeles to the desert.

The city of Redlands provided the land for the shrine and Watchorn invested $60,000 for the original octagon-shaped structure. Watchorn’s contributions total about 15 percent of the shrine’s contents to date. Books, Civil War letters and the Lincoln bust were part of the original contribution. The most valuable piece of that donation is a Lincoln manuscript valued at $20,000.

After his death, gifts were made from the Robert Watchorn Charities including money to help provide upkeep of the Shrine and funding toward the Robert Watchorn Music Hall at the University of Redlands.

 Buy and Read Robert Watchorns Autobiography

Time Line

Born: April 5,1858, in Alfreton, Derbyshire, England.
Parents: Father, John, a coal miner, and mother, Alicia.
Education: Limited and rudimentary. Attended Church of EnglandSchool for Boys for six years. Attended night school and was tutored by wife, Alma. Received an honorary doctorate from the University of Redlands in 1933.
Family: Married Alma Jessica Simpson in 1891. Two sons, RobertKinnear, who died at age 21/2, and Emory Ewart, who died in 1921 at age 26 of septicemia, an infection caused by bacteria in the blood.No grandchildren.
Pets: A.K. Smiley Public Library Director Larry Burgess believes
Watchorn had pets.
Claims to fame: Exhibits at Ellis Island touting him as the humanitarian commissioner. In 1908, he was received by the king of  Italy and by Pope Pius IX.
Music: Classical hymns.
Reading: Had an interest in American history.
Hobbies: Travel, collecting artifacts of Abraham Lincoln.
Heroes: Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Emory Pattison, who saw his potential and appointed him to mine safety. This was the first point of Watchorn deciding to go into government service. PresidentTheodore Roosevelt, who appointed him to be commissioner at Ellis  Island in 1905.
Philosophy: Have you had a kindness shown? Pass it on. The deed was not for you alone. Pass it on. Let it travel down the years, let it dry another’s tears, till at length the deed in Heaven appears.  Pass it on, pass it on. (found in the Watchorn church hymnal)
Retirement: Watchorn was too busy to retire, and worked until his  death in 1944.