John Roach

John Roach (December 25, 1815—January 10, 1887) was an American industrialist who rose from humble origins as an Irish immigrant laborer to found the largest and most productive shipbuilding empire in the postbellum United States, John Roach & Sons.

Roach emigrated to the United States at the age of sixteen in 1832, eventually finding employment at the Howell Works of James P. Allaire in New Jersey, where he learned the ironmolder's trade. Following an abortive attempt at farming in Illinois in 1839, Roach returned to Allaire's employment at the Allaire Iron Works in New York, where he learned how to build marine steam engines. In 1852, after 20 years in the employment of Allaire, Roach and three partners purchased a small New York ironworks which had fallen into receivership, the Etna Iron Works. Roach soon became sole proprietor, and during the American Civil War transformed the Etna Works into a major manufacturer of marine engines. He continued to prosper after the war, diversifying into the manufacture of machine tools and buying out his main engine-building competitors in the postwar slump. In 1867 he purchased the Morgan Iron Works on New York's East River, and relocated his business there.

In 1871, Roach purchased the shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania of Reaney, Son & Archbold, which had fallen into receivership, and renamed it the Delaware River Iron Ship Building and Engine Works, which thereafter became his main facility. In the next few years he founded a network of new companies in Chester to support the shipyard's operations, including the Chester Rolling Mill, the Chester Pipe and Tube Company, the Hirsch Propeller Company, the Chalmers-Spence asbestos company, and later the Combination Steel and Iron Company and the Standard Steel Casting Company. To give his sons a stake in the business, Roach founded the firm of John Roach & Sons, which became the overall parent and marketing company. He also attempted to create his own shipping line with the establishment of the United States and Brazil Mail Steamship Company, but this latter venture was a costly failure.

From 1871 until 1885, John Roach & Sons was easily the largest and most productive shipbuilding firm in the United States, building more tonnage of ships than its next two chief competitors combined. In the mid-1880s the firm ran into trouble with a series of U.S. Navy contracts which became the subject of political controversy. Roach had signed the contracts under a Republican administration, but when the Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland came to power, it voided one of the contracts. Doubts over the validity of the remaining three contracts made it impossible for John Roach & Sons to obtain loans, and in 1885 the Roach shipbuilding empire was forced into receivership. John Roach died at the age of 71 on January 10, 1887, while his firm was still in the hands of the receivers. After settling all the company's debts, his sons found themselves still in possession of the Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding Works in Chester and the Morgan Iron Works in New York, and they resumed the business, which was continued for another 20 years, although the firm never regained the preeminent position it had enjoyed under Roach Sr.'s leadership.

By Dean Hanley

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