Roach, John (1813–87), shipbuilder in America, was born John Roche 25 December 1813 at Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, son of Patrick Roche (occupation unknown) and Abigail Roche (née Meany). Educated locally, he emigrated at the age of 16 to the USA, where he settled at Howells, New Jersey. When he became an American citizen (8 November 1842) the clerk spelled his surname ‘Roach’, and this error was never corrected. Securing work as a puddler and iron moulder, he attempted to buy a farm in Illinois in 1840. But, unable to continue with the payments, he lost the property and was forced to move to New York, where he found work as a machinist.
Pooling resources with three other iron workers, in 1852 he purchased a foundry in the city, with $200 starting capital, and within a few years had bought out his partners. Disaster struck in 1856 when a boiler explosion destroyed the premises but, although penniless, Roach was able to borrow enough money to rebuild the Etna iron works and purchase a shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania. In 1860 he constructed the Harlem Bridge at Third Avenue, New York. The American civil war (1861–5) created a demand for armaments and equipment, and Roach was well placed to profit from lucrative government contracts. He was alert to the shift in shipbuilding from wooden to iron vessels and had ironclad designs from England studied carefully. After the war he was the leading pioneer in the USA of the new technology, and purchased additional shipyards throughout the country to meet his production targets. In 1874 his company, John Roach & Son, built the City of Peking and the City of Tokio for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company; these were the largest steamers in the USA at the time.
Roach was also involved closely in the development of compound engines for ships, and his work secured him further government contracts. In 1883 he constructed four ships for the US navy but fell victim to partisan political disputes between the Democrats and the Republicans. After investigating alleged irregularities in the awarding of the contracts, the secretary of state cancelled the payments, forcing Roach into receivership. With his health in decline, and wishing to avoid further embarrassment, Roach retired from shipbuilding on 18 July 1885. He died in New York City 10 January 1887. He married (1836) Emeline Johnson; they had nine children. For his pioneering work Roach has been called the ‘father of iron shipbuilding in America’ (Hudson River Maritime Museum).