A Delaware County Shipbuilder’s Biggest Mistake
John Roach’s political ties sent his business downstream.
An 1885 editorial cartoon skewers John Roach
It pays to diversify when buying politicians. Imagine, for instance, the predicament of John Roach—owner of a Chester shipyard with military contracts—who found himself faced with Democrats in 1885 after having invested heavily in Republicans during the previous year’s election.
Roach went out of business shortly thereafter and died in 1887.
“In the 1870s and early ’80s, most [iron ships] under the American flag came from his yard,” wrote historian Allan Nevins.
But in 1885, the Navy refused to accept Roach’s newly constructed Dolphin, claiming the ship failed its sea trials. That quickly dried up financing for the three other Navy cruisers on Roach’s ways.
Born in Ireland, Roach was the son of a merchant who had fallen on hard times. Money was tight, and the parish schools poor. According to William O. Stoddard, who wrote a profile of Roach in 1897, he was barely literate by the time he reached his adolescence.
“In later life, Mr. Roach told a friend that one of his greatest incentives to effort when a boy was the knowledge that his ancestors had been men of good degree,” wrote Stoddard. “Out of this, apparently, sprang an ambition to climb out of the place in which he found himself and up to where they had been—or higher.”
In 1828, at age 15, he sailed alone for New York. There, Roach scraped by on odd jobs until fellow immigrants steered him to a New Jersey ironworks, where he was hired for menial chores. Ten years went by, and—“in a rude, imperfect way”—Roach had become an ironworker. However, he also realized that he’d never climb any higher.
Roach had heard of cheap land in the Midwest. So, in about 1840, he quit his job at the ironworks and traveled west, leaving $1,000 in savings with his ex-employer, whom he trusted. In Illinois, he put a $500 deposit on a farm where Peoria now stands and wired back East for the rest of his money. In the interim, his old boss had gone bankrupt, so Roach lost both his $1,000 and the deposit on the farm and came home broke.
But he had a good name and, with several partners, took over a bankrupt foundry. Things went well until 1856, when a boiler exploded and destroyed the foundry. Roach bought out his partners and started again. “He could obtain credits on his own name,” wrote Stoddard. “And the business he undertook and accomplished speedily set him on his feet.”
In 1860, Roach’s Aetna Works was one of several major contractors that built a large iron drawbridge across the Harlem River on Third Avenue. It was an advanced piece of engineering for its time and positioned the company to grow during the Civil War years. After the war, though, he had a different market in mind: iron ships. “The Civil War had swept from the high seas the American flag and had transferred to foreign keels the carrying trade between the United States and Europe,” Stoddard explained. “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 shipyard.”
In the postwar recession, Roach bought up several marine suppliers in the New York area, plus a big shipyard in Chester. According to Stoddard, over $1.25 million had been spent to develop Rainey & Sons. Roach grabbed it for $750,000 and renamed it the Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding and Engine Works. After improvements—cranes, engines and state-of-the-art machinery intended to lower costs—the yard was valued at $2 million and covered 20 acres.
It was a great location. Chester was close to Pennsylvania’s iron- and coal-mining industries and was part of Philadelphia’s transportation network.Plus, the region offered skilled workers.
Integration of iron works, engine works and shipyard facilities made it possible to undercut most competitors on price. So, Roach soon became the country’s largest shipbuilder. Between 1871 and 1885, his company built more tonnage of ships than its next two competitors combined. In 1874, the Roach shipyard launched passenger-cargo steamers City of Peking and City of Tokio. Built for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and weighing 5,033 gross tons each, the steamers were the largest U.S.-built iron merchant ships ever constructed—almost twice the size of the largest ship built by Philadelphia competitor Cramp shipyard.
Some Roach ships were advanced for their time. Columbia, launched in 1880, was the first ship to use incandescent lights.
Building ships forced Roach into other ventures. Some shipping lines resisted the transition to iron ships, which were more expensive than wood. To lower costs, Roach offered to buy shares in the companies, taking future earnings as payment. In this way, he accumulated substantial interests in several different lines.
Roach was also the U.S. Navy’s largest contractor—not only of ships but also facilities. In 1877, it built a sectional dry dock for the Pensacola Navy Yard. Navy work, however, was not cutting edge. Washington slashed military spending after the Civil War, so there was little investment in new technology. Roach’s first project for the Navy, in 1873, was to build an engine for a wooden-hull lighthouse tender. The following year, a war scare brought in a contract to repair four Civil War monitors.
Roach’s political activity probably dates back to these years. He was active in Chester by virtue of business partnerships with the Crozer and Houston families. At their peak, the Crozers, Houstons and Roaches employed 25 percent of Chester residents.
Other interests led to Washington. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company, for instance, had a federal subsidy to carry the mail, and maintaining it was in Roach’s interest. In the late 1870s, he attempted to establish his own steamship line between the United States and Brazil. He even invited President Rutherford B. Hayes and the entire U.S. Congress to the 1878 launching of its first ship. Roach’s line did not win a mail subsidy, however.
Stoddard said Roach was “on friendly terms with every Republican statesman who agreed with him upon the protection of American shipbuilding.” His influence was “almost equivalent to an election.” Yes, he occasionally supported a Democrat. But in the post-Civil War decades, the reality was that Republicans were in control. Democrats did not win the White House again until 1884, when Grover Cleveland was elected.
During the 1884 campaign, Roach was a prominent GOP supporter. His presence was noted at what Republicans called a “prosperity dinner” for Republican candidate James G. Blaine. Critics called it “The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings” and noted the contrast between that fat-cat event and the many unemployed.
Cleveland was elected as a reformer. After the scandals of the Grant administration, Republicans had developed a reputation for corruption, machine politics and incompetence. One issue was the state of the Navy, which an 1881 naval advisory-board report had called alarming. “Between 1868 and 1885, the government had expended more than $75 million upon the construction, repair, equipment and upkeep of a heterogeneous array of wooden vessels, and had almost nothing to show for it,” wrote Cleveland biographer Allan Nevins.
The Navy had just spent more than half a million dollars to rebuild the USS Omaha, a wooden three-masted sloop launched in 1869. A modern steel-hulled vessel, observed Nevins, would have cost no more.
Cleveland’s reform-minded secretary of the Navy, William C. Whitney, found “the track of the politicians everywhere.” Repair work had been farmed out to Republican shipyards—like Roach’s—and those yards made sure their workers voted Republican.
In fairness, the previous Arthur administration had realized that an overhaul was needed. It had awarded contracts to Roach’s—without soliciting competing bids—for three new steel cruisers and a dispatch boat. When Cleveland came into office, the first three of these “ABCD boats”—Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Dolphin—were on the ways in Chester. An advisory committee had put Dolphin through sea trials and had recommended that it be accepted.
Both Cleveland and Whitney were suspicious. Whitney appointed a new committee, whose report was scathing: Dolphin’s single gun could not fire forward. It could not consistently make the required 15 knots. The bow was not strong enough to resist heavy seas. The armory was wet. The propeller shaft broke.
The problem was larger than one ship. Probably, no other yard would have done much better. The truth was that U.S. shipyards didn’t know how to build steel warships. Armor plate had to be imported. The country had no foundries that could make modern steel guns. “If in Arthur’s administration a really able secretary of the Navy had pooled his brains with those of the nation’s best industrialists, the new Navy might have been well-launched,” wrote Nevins. “Instead, the secretary was a hack politician, and the shipbuilder he chose was a single illiterate, elderly, infirm ironmaster named John Roach.”
The committee rejected Dolphin, and the new attorney general ruled that Roach’s no-bid contracts had been illegal anyway. That meant it wouldn’t take the other three ships, either.
The effect on Roach was catastrophic. His credit vanished, and creditors put out their hands. “The house of John Roach & Son was forced to suspend,” wrote Stoddard. “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.”
Eventually, the Navy did take the ships. It took over the yard and finished the cruisers to its own specifications with Roach’s workforce. Even then, wrote Nevins, their “armament was weak, the machinery poor, and the speed so slow that they could neither overtake the best modern merchantmen nor escape the speediest armored ships of Europe.” Dolphin eventually joined the fleet, too.
But the damage to Roach was done. The company spent two years in receivership, then continued as a smaller company under the leadership of John Roach Jr. In 1908, it closed forever.
If only Roach had thought to buy some Democrats, too.