Little would the visitor of today suspect that much of the western part of the City of Rock Island, now built up with modern homes, business houses and factories, was once an uninhabitable swamp; worse than that, it was covered with water to a great extent, and when the Mississippi was high a rapidly flowing stream ran through half the present length of the city, and skiffs, rafts and even steamboats passed over the very place where hundreds now live and work on dry, firm mother earth the year around. The work of reclaiming this tract of land has been one of less than fifty years, and the process has been a gradual one, full of hard work and patience on the part of those actively engaged.
Among those who saw the possibilities of this part of the city and who labored long and diligently for its improvement, none deserves greater credit than the subject of this sketch. When he, in 1870, purchased his first lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street, water stood upon it at all seasons, varying in depth from two to six feet. Largely by hand labor he and his family filled it, and built a home there. Later they bought other lots till they owned two blocks, which were gradually improved, and now are among the most valuable in the residence portion of the city.
John W. Roche was born February 22, 1839, in County Waterford, Ireland, celebrated for its fisheries. He was the eldest of three sons, his parents being Michael and Katherine Power Roche. Tradition has it that the ancestors of the father came to Ireland from France in the early part of the seventeenth century as soldiers and remained to fight for the island of their adoption. The parents of our subject lived to an advanced age, the father reaching his ninety-seventh year and the mother her ninety-third. The son obtained a limited education in the national schools. One of his earliest recollections is of incidents connected with the famine of 1846-47 when the potato crop failed. Mr. Roche came to America in 1866, and finally reached Wisconsin with fifty cents in his pocket. Here he worked two years in the lead mines at Shullsberg, having many interesting experiences, and learning, among other things, to play baseball, with the result that he has been an enthusiastic supporter of the national game ever since.
At the end of two years the desire to obtain an education led Mr. Roche to go to Fon du Lac, where he temporarily took up railroading. Seeing, however, a better opportunity for financial gain and mental improvement he soon left the road to become a book agent. Thus it was that he came to visit Rock Island. Mr. Roche relates that when he first thought, of coming to the city he has helped build up he was advised by a veteran police magistrate of LaSalle, Illinois, where he happened to be, to avoid the place, on the ground that human life and property were not safe there, his friend adding that three-fourths of the criminals who had come before him were from Rock Island. Apparently, the advice did not make a deep impression for in a short time our subject found himself in Rock Island, and so well pleased was he that he at once decided that he would never settle elsewhere. A few months later, November, 1869, he was married at Fulton, Illinois, to Miss Ellen Mulcahey, and March 25, 1870, the couple came to Rock Island to stay.
For ten years thereafter Mr. Roche continued in the book business and made a success of it. Then he embarked in other lines, among which was life insurance, and here again he demonstrated his fitness, standing, after two years, eleventh in point of business written, among two hundred agents of the Prudential Insurance Company. In July, 1900, Mr. Roche established the American Steam Laundry at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street, which he still owns and operates.
Mr. Roche has never held public office. Neither has he affiliated with any party, preferring to support the men whom he believes fit, rather than platforms full of glittering generalities. He is a faithful member of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, and withal, a fine example of the self-made man.
Eleven children have been born to Mr. and Mrs. Roche. Four died in infancy, the others still surviving.