The blue skies seep through the clouds as crowds wave and cheer from both sea and shore the black and red greatness of a ship settled in the Chester waters.
The scene is displayed in “The Launching of the City of Peking,” an 1874 painting by Alexander Charles Stuart, also known as A.C. Stuart, of Chester, rare because of its actual depiction of the ship’s launching at Roach’s Shipyard.
It is thought to have been given to the Delaware County Historical Society, Museum & Research Library sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s by Emeline Roach Sproul and her sister, Mary Garretta Roach Forbes.
It was restored in 1968 by Cyril Gardner.
The City of Peking was among the largest vessels to be built in the United States at that time. It was 423 feet long and weighed 5,079 tons.
President Ulysses S. Grant, the vice president, cabinet members and hundreds of other high government officials rode the City of Peking on its trial run.
The ship itself was officially launched at Roach’s Shipyard, otherwise known as the Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding and Engine Works, on March 18, 1874.
The yard reached its height under John Roach, who bought the facility from the firm of Reaney, Son & Archbold in 1871.
Roach became known as “the father of iron shipbuilding in America” for his prowess in the craft. Roach’s ships were in operation for three to four decades after he built them.
For 36 years, this “shipyard with a tradition” built 219 ships of all kinds; from man o’ wars, to cruisers, to freighters, coal barges, sail boats, oil tankers, gunboats, patrol boats, and yachts. Steamships were Roach’s specialty.
In 1917, the business became the Chester Shipbuilding Company Ltd. and later it morphed into Merchant Shipbuilding Corp. During that time, the yard covered 50 acres of Chester waterfront.
By 1927, the shipbuilding facility had become the Chester Assembly Plant of the Ford Motor Company.
Some ship constructing milestones were reached at the Chester operations. The first iron sailing ship ever built in the United States – the Tillie E. Starbuck – was launched here in 1883.
And, the first steel ships in the U.S. Navy – the cruisers Atlanta, Boston and Chicago – were launched here in 1884.
The painting itself conveys the excitement and vitality of Chester’s waterfront when ship manufacturing occupied its shores.
“The Launching of the City of Peking” is housed at the Delaware County Historical Society’s museum. The museum is at 408 Avenue of the States in Chester and is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 1 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday; and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The museum’s telephone number is 610-872-0502. Parking is free on the society lot behind the building or across the street in the municipal lot.