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John Roach & Son
Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding and Engine Works

John Roach was the distinguished manufacturer and iron ship builder, who won world-wide fame by his gigantic operations, and forever linked his name with maritime architecture in America. He was born at Mitchellstown, County Cork, Ireland, on Christmas day, 1813, and came to America when only sixteen years of age. The achievements of his life, through which he placed himself at the head of the ship-building interests of his age, are a part of the naval and marine history of America.

His career was typical of the grand possibilities American institutions afford to persistent industry, fortitude and courage. It opened with a necessity for strong individual effort, and was not free from the discouragements and losses that wreck less determined men; but these ordeals held no terror for the dauntless Roach, and only served to develop abilities that finally commanded international regard. During his life Mr. Roach constructed ninety-three large ships, aggregating more than one hundred and eighty- four thousand tons. The civil war swept from the high seas the American flag and transferred to foreign keels the carrying trade between the United States and Europe. The day of wooden ships seemed almost to have gone by. Great hulls of iron, score on score, came ploughing the waters around New York, and not one of them was made by American labor in an American ship-yard. The fact that they were not, however, presented Mr. Roach with the very opportunity he longed for. He believed that he could succeed where other men had failed.

Down on the Delaware River, at Chester, Pennsylvania, there was a large ship-yard, that of Rainey & Sons [1857-1870], which had latterly not proved a financial success. It was said that nearly a million and a quarter of dollars had been expended to develop it, but not all of the money had been wisely employed and there were defects requiring remedy. For less than three-quarters of a million, in 1871, Mr. Roach became the owner and named it John Roach & Son. He added to its area until the entire yard contained twenty acres. He increased all facilities with thoughtful liberality until the entire " plant" was moderately valued at two millions of dollars. There were paydays, not long afterward, when the long lines of men who marched up to obtain their earnings numbered two thousand.

There were frequent visits to Washington required, and he was never weary of explaining to legislators and others his analysis of the relations between American iron in the form of a ship and the American labor which had developed the finished commerce-carrier from the raw materials in the forests and the mines. Of one great steamer, the Tokio, he declared : "All but about five per cent, of her present cost price is wages paid to workmen." The vast business went on, year after year, until it struck upon the very rock which had been so often avoided by skilful steering.

During twelve years he built at the Chester Works no less than sixty-three iron steamships, and fifty-one of various grades elsewhere, making one hundred and fourteen in all. Among the Chester-built vessels were six monitors, three cruisers - the Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston - and the despatch boat Dolphin, for the United States Government. Not less important were the huge steamships built for the Pacific line of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. These, and indeed every ship turned out from his yards, brought Mr. Roach into close relations with official and legislative circles at Washington. He was an enthusiast upon the general subject of American ships and American commerce. Probably no man understood it better, but he was not a politician.

Naturally patriotic, his individuality was too strong to be confined within the barriers of a party organization. For instance, while a stanch supporter of President Grant's administration and on friendly terms with every Republican statesman who agreed with him upon the protection of American ship-building, the candidates named in his own New York district for Congressmen by the Republicans sometimes did not meet with his approval and he gave his influence, almost equivalent to an election, to James Brooks, and afterward to S. S. Cox.

Grover Cleveland was the First Democrat elected President after the Civil War. Entering office in 1885, President Cleveland's cabinet included William C. Whitney, of New York as Secretary of the Navy and Augustus H. Garland, of Arkansas, as Attorney-general, among others. Cleveland vigorously pursued a policy barring special favors to any economic group. The army of place-hunters in Washington were disappointed; they surged through the corridors of the various department buildings, camped in the hotels and parks, invaded the private offices of the chiefs of bureaus and made difficult the orderly transaction of current business. But, for the first time in the history of the Republic, a change in the political complexion of the National Administration did not involve an immediate and sweeping change in the minor offices in the gift of the Government.

One of the earliest acts of the new Administration that aroused the antagonism of its opponents was the rejection of one of the new cruisers built for the navy under a contract made by the previous Administration. The ship Dolphin, technically known as a despatch boat, after examination by a board of experts appointed by Secretary Whitney, was reported as unfit for duty on account of her "structural weakness."

Secretary Whitney having predetermined to "sit down on John Roach," and seeing that this "structural weakness" business was too thin to go down well, called off Attorney General Garland, whose offices seems to be, to do the dirty work for the administration, to help him out. Attorney-general Garland, having examined the question of the disposition of the vessel, decided that the contracts under which the Dolphin was built were not valid. Garland understood his business and promptly came forward with an "opinion" that the contract was illegal or rather was no contract, and therefore the Secretary could not recognize it by accepting the vessel. Thereupon Whitney rejected the vessel.The despatch-boat Dolphin was rejected and thrown back upon his hands by government examiners at a bad stage of the general money market.

This so greatly embarrassed the contractor, John Roach, of Philadelphia, then also engaged in building three large cruisers, the Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston, that he was forced into bankruptcy, and threw out of employment 2,500 workmen, depriving their families and dependents of their means of living. The utterly unexpected blow, however, was disastrous in its first effects. The timid money market closed its hand, credits ceased, and the house of John Roach & Son was forced to suspend. Yards and shops ceased their operations. So did distant iron mills and forges that supplied materials. The workmen went home and so did John Roach. On 04 November 1885 the Dolphin dispute was resolved. The four vessels were subsequently finished under the direction of the Government, the Roach works and workmen being employed, with the consent of Roach's assignees. That the decision on the Dolphin was not justified was at a later day proved by the final acceptance of the vessel.

John Roach made a brave, persistent, and partly successful struggle to regain his feet, but he was getting old and he was tired. Not many months later, January 10, 1887, he died, leaving behind him, in the minds of all who knew him, an exceedingly kindly and respectful memory of one of the best and most patriotic of American business men - a man whose splendid faculties had been forced to work altogether through the hands of other men. That its close was clouded by misunderstandings with the government is a circumstance that excited the warmest human sympathy, and a clear conception of the facts detracts nothing from the admiration due his marvelous work and his unparalleled success.

John B. Roach, the head of the Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding & Engine works of Chester, and vice president of the Morgan Iron works of New York city, was the second and eldest surviving son of John and Emeline (Johnson) Roach, and was born in the city of New York, December 7, 1839.

Upon the purchase of the shipbuilding works at Chester, Pennsylvania, by the elder Roach, in 1871, John B. Roach came to this city as general superintendent and resident manager of these ship yards, and resided here ever since. He continued to act as superintendent and manager of this vast industrial enterprise until the death of his father in 1887, when upon the reorganization of the varions concerns he was made president of the Chester Company, now known as The Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding and Engine Works, and vice president of the Morgan Iron works.

While the elder Roach was a practical shipbuilder and mechanical engineer of unexampled inventive ability, and his death a severe blow to American ship-building, yet the work he began was nobly carried on by his son, and the old time reputation of the Chester ship-yards amply sustained.

These works were refitted with the latest devices in perfected machinery, and with ample resources at command were driven with orders for the largest ocean steamships and naval vessels. These vast works and yards covered an area of twenty-eight acres, being the largest of their kind in the United States. They occupy an admirable location on the Delaware river, and have deep water frontage, with large ways and all conveniences for building and launching the largest vessels.

Here are large machine shops, foundry, boiler works, pattern shops, erecting shops, etc., each a substantial building of extended dimensions. The average force employed is fifteen hundred men - machinists, shipwrights, riveters, boiler makers, carpenters, joiners, designers, draughtsmen, and others. These yards present a scene of busy industry unequaled elsewhere in Delaware county, have the enviable reputation of doing the finest and most accurate work of any American ship-yard, and the specimens of marine architecture constructed here are certainly unexcelled anywhere for speed, stability, capacity and endurance in all weather.

Mr. Roach devoted his close personal attention to the company's vast and complicated business, and by his conspicuous success has proved himself a ship-builder of sound judgment and great executive capacity, and a worthy representative and successor of his honored father, who will always be known in history as the father and founder of the modern iron shipbuilding business in the United States.

This shipyard, originally established in 1857, had a distinguished career building fine ships before it closed in 1922. It was revived for the war effort in 1917 but was acquired by Averell Harriman's American Ship & Commerce Corporation in 1919 and renamed Merchant Shipbuilding. The yard was located at Front and Lloyd Streets in Chester: after it closed in 1924, it was redeveloped as a Ford assembly plant, which closed in 1961.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:56:06 ZULU