By: J. Thomas Scharf
Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts & Co. 1883
Pages 615 - 617
Book donated to the Dogtown Historical Society
By: Tim Vezeau, St. James School Class of 1958

Associated with Mr. Whittaker during the exciting period of the civil war was John J. Roe, who was largely interested with him in furnishing supplies to the military authorities in St. Louis at a critical time, when the government, as already stated, had neither money nor credit. Mr. Roe was a strong and active Union man when the war began, although originally of a conservative disposition and at one time a slave- holder. Believing slavery, however, to be wrong, be had set his slaves free. For many years Mr. Roe was one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent merchant-prince of St. Louis. His name, in fact, headed every large undertaking which was thought likely to advance St. Louis to the position of one of the chief mercantile cities of the Union, and it was his unceasing and untiring energy that gave an impetus towards certain success to every enterprise with which he was connected.

Like most of the indomitable wills that have left their impress upon the history of the city, he was emphatically a self-made man, and every dollar of the vast sums which he accumulated was the product of his calculating energy. His parents were plain farm people, living near Buffalo, N. Y., and here, April 18, 1809, John J. Roe was born. When he was six years old the family, having caught the Western fever, removed to Cincinnati, thence to Kentucky, and finally settled at Rising Sun, Ind,, where the father bought a farm and owned a ferry, dying there in 1834.

Schools were few and far between in Indiana at that time, but young Roe made as much use of them as he could without interfering with the duty of helping his father on the farm and at the ferry. The latter employment seems to have given him his first taste for steamboating, the occupation which he was subsequently to follow so successfully; for already, in 1832 (two years before his father’s death), he had left home and was engaged at Cincinnati in some humble capacity on a steamboat. From this position he rose by successive promotions until he became captain of the vessel, and at the very outset of his career he brilliantly demonstrated his wonderful business ability. By judicious trading be made such large profits jointly for himself and the owners of the vessel that in less than two years from the time he engaged on the boat, a poor boy with but a few dollars in his pocket, he was the captain and sole owner.

After such an auspicious beginning his success was uniform, and in a very few years he had built and was operating a fleet of the finest vessels on the Ohio River and its tributaries.

In 1837 he married Miss Martha A. Wright, daughter of Thomas Wright, of Cincinnati.

In 1840, Capt. Roe started from Cincinnati with a boat-load of merchandise for the upper Missouri River, and stopping at St. Louis, became so favorably impressed with its advantages from a commercial stand-point that he determined to make it in future the base of his operations. His first venture here was the establishment of a commission-house, which he personally took charge of, leaving his boats to be run by salaried captains. From this enterprise grew the firm of Hewitt, Roe & Co., which soon became widely known, then Hewitt, Roe & Kercheval, which developed a large business in packing pork for the English market.

A fire which occurred during this period left Capt. Roe, after paying all obligations, with nothing but a small interest which he had in several boats, but he began, with his wonted cheerfulness and courage, to repair his shattered fortunes, and soon had the firm of John J. Roe & Co., the successors of Hewitt, Roe & Kercheval, established on a solid basis, and maintained its high standing and credit to the day of his death.

During his business career Capt. Roe was one of the largest pork operators in the United States, and was often associated with the Ameses (Henry and Edgar), the Whittakers, the Ashbrooks, and others in transactions of very great magnitude. He was also a special partner in the houses of J. Eager & Co., of New York, and D. W. C. Sanford, of New Orleans, disposed to abandon the project as hopeless, and refused to advance any more money, he infused new life into the project by pledging one hundred thousand dollars in cash, for when it was known that the enterprise was approved by his judgment it did not henceforth lack for supporters. As an evidence of the weight which justly attached to his opinion, it is related that at this dark hour in the history of the bridge he hastened to New York, had a meeting of the stockholders hastily called, and in thirty minutes from the time of assembling one million two hundred thousand dollars had been subscribed.

Among the great corporations with which Mr. Roe was connected and the offices he held may be mentioned the following President of the Merchants’ Exchange, president of the Atlantic and Mississippi Steamship Company, once the most powerful company on the river, director in the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad Company, director in the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge Company, the St. Charles Bridge Company, the Illinois and St. Louis Railroad and Coal Company, the North Missouri Railroad, and in several street railroad companies, and president and one of the organizers of the Life Association of America, at that time one of the largest and most successful life insurance companies in the United States. To all of these he gave his personal attention, and died literally in harness, for while he was attending a meeting of the Memphis Packet Company, on the afternoon of Feb. 14, 1870. and chatting pleasantly with his friends, his head fell on one side, he gasped for breath, and suddenly expired.

His death, so sudden and unexpected. shocked the community and elicited the most poignant expressions of sorrow and regret, and his obsequies were the occasion of a general suspension of business by direction of the mayor.

What was the secret of this extraordinary popularity? For throughout his career he enjoyed the unbounded affection of his friends, and was endeared to the hearts of the people of St. Louis. The answer is readily found in the uniform kindliness and impulsive generosity of his character.

“What makes you look so blue?” said the captain to a young merchant he met on the street. “I have two thousand barrels of pork to deliver tomorrow, and the railroads inform me that they cannot reach here for three days, and pork has advanced two dollars per barrel.” “I’ll loan them to you,” said the captain, immediately writing out the order. “By the by, you said some two weeks ago that you wanted to get a book-keeper’s situation: have you succeeded ?” said the captain to a young man he had almost passed on the street. “No, captain.” “Well, go up to _____ and tell Mr. ______ that you are the young man I spoke about several days ago; if the place suits you he will give it to you.”

“The bank does not seem to like this paper,”’ said a business acquaintance as the captain was passing into one of the large banks in which he was not interested. “Why, what is the matter with it, Dick? If they don’t want it I’ll take it.” The cashier overheard the conversation, his opinion changed, and the bank took the paper.

Thousands of incidents like these might be related illustrating his kind and helpful spirit, and his generous acts towards the embarrassed and struggling, acts which endeared him to all with whom he came in contact, and caused his death to be mourned as a public calamity. The poor found in him a generous and gentle benefactor, but his charities, although innumerable. were bestowed in quiet, and we may be sure they went up before him as a memorial to God. Though not a member of any church (for his views were too broad and liberal to be confined within the limits of a creed), he was a constant attendant at the Second Presbyterian Church (where his wife was a member), and no man lived more reverence for the teachings of the Divine Master or wove them more visibly into the business of his life, He was not merely an honest man, as the world esteems honesty, but his private life was as unspotted as was his public career. He was a pure man in all that the word implies.

In disposition Capt. Roe was cheerful and genial. He was easily approached, even by the humblest, and lent a willing oar to their wants. A keen judge of character, when once he confided in a man his faith was implicit. This is illustrated in the following anecdote: An agent who was about starting into the country on a mission involving the disbursement of probably half a million dollars for pork called for his instruction, expecting to receive the twenty or thirty pages of foolscap usual in such cases. The captain succinctly answered, “All you have to do is to take care of your money, and see that you get all the property you pay for.” The trust reposed in the agent put him on his mettle and made him doubly watchful.

Capt. Roe established a beautiful home at Lafayette and Compton Avenues, then in the suburbs, the grounds containing ten acres. Here he pleasantly welcomed his friends, threw off the cares of business, and became the simple gentleman that nature made him. Here his widow still lives amid memories too precious to be more than mentioned.

Bob Corbett


Bibliography Oral history Recorded history Photos
YOUR page External links Walking Tour

Bob Corbett