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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

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Death of Shipbuilding Mogul John Roach

john-roachJohn Roach, an American industrialist who rises 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, dies in New York City on January 10, 1887.

Roach is born on December 25, 1815 at Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, the first of seven children to Patrick Roche, a retail salesman, and his wife Abigail Meany. In 1832, at the age of sixteen, he emigrates together with his cousin to the United States. Arriving in New York City, he is at first unable to find regular work, but eventually gains secure employment at the Howell Works of James P. Allaire on the recommendation of a former employee of his father.

In 1852, after 20 years in the employment of Allaire, Roach and three partners purchase the Etna Iron Works, a small New York ironworks which has fallen into receivership. Roach soon becomes sole proprietor, and during the American Civil War transforms the Etna Works into a major manufacturer of marine engines. He continues to prosper after the war and in 1867 he purchases the Morgan Iron Works on New York’s East River and relocates his business there.

In 1871, Roach purchases the Reaney, Son & Archbold shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania, which has fallen into receivership and renames it the Delaware River Iron Ship Building and Engine Works. This becomes his main facility. Over the next few years he founds a network of new companies in Chester to support the shipyard’s operations. To give his sons a stake in the business, Roach founds the firm of John Roach & Sons, which becomes the overall parent and marketing company. He also attempts to create his own shipping line with the establishment of the United States and Brazil Mail Steamship Company but this venture is a costly failure.

From 1871 until 1885, John Roach & Sons is 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 runs into trouble when a series of U.S. Navy contracts become the subject of political controversy. Roach signed the contracts under a Republican administration, but when the Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland comes to power, it voids one of the contracts. Doubts over the validity of the remaining three contracts make it impossible for John Roach & Sons to obtain loans and, in 1885, the Roach shipbuilding empire is forced into receivership.

During the contract disputes, Roach falls ill with a chronic mouth infection which is diagnosed as cancer in 1886. Roach undergoes surgery in the spring of 1886 but it provides only temporary relief. He dies at the age of 71 on January 10, 1887, while his business is still in the hands of receivers. Roach’s eldest son, John Baker Roach, assumes control of the business which continues for another 20 years, although it never regains the pre-eminent position in American shipbuilding that it had enjoyed under Roach Sr.

During its existence between 1871 and 1907, the shipyard established by Roach builds 179 iron ships, 98 under Roach’s own management and an additional 81 under that of John Baker Roach.