Famine: McRoberts was born in 1824 in Dundonald, County Down, now Northern Ireland, the bucolic village shown above located not far from Belfast. His parents were William McRoberts Sr., the son of John McRoberts and Margaret McLean, and Anna Moore, a daughter of Robin Moore. The family home was at Ballyoran. Shown right, the McRoberts house was a substantial ivy-covered residence bespeaking some affluence. Surrounded by six brothers and sisters, William likely knew a relatively tranquil childhood.
That picture changed abruptly in the 1840s while McRoberts was still in his teens. The failure of the potato crop, the primary food staple of the Irish people, caused widespread starvation, death, and massive migration from the Emerald Isle. The McRoberts family is said to have scattered over the world to Canada, the U.S. and Australia. William was among those who came to America, likely aboard one of the so-called “famine ships,” that crammed hundreds of people into cramped spaces for a rough two-weeks on the Atlantic. He eventually found his way to Cincinnati.
Freedom: When McRoberts next surfaced in the public record he was working for a Cincinnati wholesale liquor house known as Boyle, Miller & Company. Steven S. Boyle, like McRoberts, was an immigrant from Ireland. About 1853 he gave young William a job as a “drayman,” driving a horse-drawn wagon. In this role McRoberts became a cog in the “Underground Railroad,” smuggling escaping slaves to freedom in the North and safety in Canada.
A key to freedom was crossing the border of slave states; the Ohio River was a major objective. By the first decades of the 1800s, every state in the North had legally abolished slavery, including border states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Ohio had the most active escape network with around 3,000 miles of routes used by runaways. It also was the closest state to Canada with only about 250 miles from the Kentucky border to Lake Erie and safety.
People who guided slaves from place to place were called “conductors.” McRoberts was a conductor with excellent opportunities. Among his duties was traveling by horse and wagon over the Ohio River to nearby distilleries in Kentucky, bringing barrels of whiskey back to Cincinnati. Somewhere on his return McRoberts would halt his team and another conductor would help him load a slave, or perhaps two, into whiskey barrels that he would then cart back across the river and offload at Boyle Miller. After dark, the escapees would be spirited up to another “station” likely at Auburn Hills, Ohio, on the way to Canada.
What was McRoberts motivation? My first assumption is that Steven Boyle was aware of the gambit and approved. Both men were taking a risk. Boyle could have had his wagon, horses and cargo confiscated. McRoberts would have faced fines, jail, and possible physical harm if caught. William’s wife, Mary Harriet Conway, may have been an abolitionist influence. He had married her in Cincinnati in 1850, a Presbyterian minister presiding. Recorded as Boyle’s drayman from 1853 to 1859, McRoberts had the opportunity to assist dozens of escapees until the outbreak of the Civil War that eventually ended the need for the “Railroad.”
Family: The 1860 census found William, with his Irish-born wife, living in Cincinnati with four children, three girls and a boy, ages 9 to 1; a fifth child, a boy, would be born later that year. With them was William G. Conway, 14, attending school, a younger brother of Mary Harriet. William’s occupation was given in the census as “clerk,” having been raised by Boyle to a position inside his whiskey operation. By the following year, the obviously talented McRoberts had been moved up to foreman. He also must have been investing in the distillery. Upon Boyle’s death in 1865 McRoberts became its principal owner in partnership with Hamilton Miller.
When the Civil War ended McRoberts wasted no time in expanding his distilling activities. He built a second distillery near Latonia Station, on the Louisville Short Line & Kentucky Central Railroads, located about four miles south of Cincinnati. Known on Federal rolls as RD #2, 6th District of Kentucky, McRoberts designated this plant the Willow Run Distillery. Much later he installed his son-in-law, Thomas Hewitt, as the manager. Under the leadership of McRoberts, who has been described as a “master distiller,” the fortunes of Boyle, Miller continued to rise.
Amid all this success, there was tragedy. In January 1864 the McRoberts’ youngest daughter, Harriet only five years old, died of burns and was buried in Sec. 46, Lot 23, Spring Grove Cemetery. Not long after, the date uncertain, Mary Harriet herself died, her burial place still unidentified. This left William with four children under the age of 16 to care for. Seemingly looking for a mother for his brood, he remarried in 1866.
McRoberts’ second wife was Ellen “Ella” Barker, the daughter of a highly privileged family from Peoria, Illinois. Nineteen years younger than her husband, Ella had been sent to the exclusive Maplewood School for young ladies in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and was accustomed to spending summers at a seaside cottage near Boston. William may have met her through her father, Gardner Thurston Barker, a well-established Peoria distiller. After the marriage Barker made McRoberts a partner in his company. The couple would have two children of their own, both boys. When his eldest son from Harriet Conway, Gavinus came of age, William brought him into the distillery business.
In 1867 McRoberts bought seven acres on Grandin Road in the Walnut Hills area of Cincinnati. There for $30,000 ($750,000 today) he built a large home for Ella and the children on what would become known as Cincinnati’s “Millionaires Row.” As can be seen above, it was a spacious dwelling with a large wrap-around porch, doric columns and a mansard roof, forming a very attractive residential dwelling.
Fire: Fire was an ever present problem for liquor enterprises. While McRoberts was still working as a drayman, a serious fire broke out at Boyle’s Wholesale Liquors, located at 53 East Second Street, recorded by the Cincinnati Firefighters Diary. The loss from this blaze was set at $150,000, equivalent to more than $3.5 million today and three firefighters were hurt. Without any real proof, it occurs to me that this fire could have been set. Southern sympathizers called “Copperheads” were rife in Cincinnati and, if they had known about the company help to escaping slaves, might well have torched the building.
Just after Christmas 1867, with McRoberts in charge, fire visited the premises of the distillery, destroying the plant. Its storage areas held 9,000 barrels of highly inflammable whiskey that fueled a fire so intense that the stone walls of the building crumbled. The Spencer House hotel at the rear was seriously threatened but saved by fire crews. One firefighter was injured. The loss to McRoberts and his partner was set at $450,000, equivalent to more than $9 million today. Although insurance paid $200,000, the remainder came from the owners’ pockets.
Undeterred by this setback, McRoberts immediately began to rebuild. Only a few months later a newsman from the Cincinnati National Union visited the site and reported that: “This establishment has, Phoenix-like, arisen from its ashes and is again in full blast and in complete running order.” Introduced to McRoberts, who possibly escorted him through the distillery, the journalist was shown a enormous still in operation, the first of three scheduled to be installed. He reported that the stills would make Boyle, Miller “the most extensive distillery in the United States.”
The reporter paid particular attention to the problem of fire: “Although this portion of the building cannot be said to fire proof, extra and unusual precautions have been taken in its erection against probable fire.” Among these were pipes in the walls extending from the first to fourth floors,a few feet apart. The ideas was that flames would be drawn through them like chimneys and escape at the top without injury to the walls.
Financial Struggles: Those precautions proved unavailing. In 1869 Boyle, Miller suffered a second major fire, again with great monetary loss. This time McRoberts lacked the resources to rebuild. He sought to recoup from the Federal government the amount he already had paid in taxes for the now destroyed whiskey, but was refused. Prior to passage of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, distillers were taxed on product immediately after it was put in barrels and stored for aging. Such taxes were a principal sources of federal revenue until a national income tax was imposed in 1913. Eventually McRoberts sued in Federal Court for a refund.
Authorities were highly skeptical about claims from distillers experiencing fires. In some cases, owners had been known clandestinely to cart their barrels to a new location, torch their plant, and ask for a refund on taxes paid. While no such suspicion fell on McRoberts, the situation could lead to high tension. In 1870 a Federal liquor gauger/inspector named Mohan had a confrontation with McRoberts, attacked him with a knife and was arrested.
Meanwhile, the Northern Irish immigrant was struggling financially. By 1871, McRoberts’ partnership with Hamilton Miller had been dissolved and Boyle, Miller & Co. ceased being listed Cincinnati directories. The same year he sold his Walnut Hill mansion and an indeterminate amount of acreage for what appears to have been a “bargain basement” price, With a partner named Todd, he retreated to Boyle’s former location at 53-55 East Second Street, running both a liquor store and a second enterprise, W. McRoberts & Co., listed as manufacturers of coloring and flavoring for liquors. All the while he was paying lawyers in a vain attempt to retrieve his whiskey tax.
According to a descendant, during this period of financial struggle, Ella McRoberts began to spend more and more time in Peoria with her parents. At some point she left for good, taking her two sons with her. Whatever the emotional toll of this desertion, it pales with the suffering McRoberts met in July 1875. While boarding a train he lost his footing and fell under the car. The wheels passed over his leg and abdomen in what appeared to be a fatal accident. McRoberts, however, survived almost five months with his injuries, dying at his home on McMillan Street in January 1876 at the age of 52.
His funeral was held at home, arranged by Thomas Hewitt and a friend, Edmund Amann. The Members of the Walnut Hills Knights of Pythias held a special ceremony in honor of their brother member the same day at their Castle Hall.
While his family and friends gathered at his graveside McRoberts was laid to rest in Section 46, Lot 23, of Spring Grove Cemetery not far from his daughter Harriet. The family monument is shown here.
It is unclear whether Ella returned to Cincinnati for his funeral. McRobert’s obituary makes no mention of her. She continued to live in Peoria for the rest of her life, never remarrying, raising her sons and being active in community affairs until she died in 1923 and was buried near her parents. With William’s death the family settled the long-running dispute with the federal government over the tax issue.
Within the space of a single vignette, it is scarcely possible to reflect the full character of an individual. The years between McRobert’s arrival in the U.S. and working for Boyle in Cincinnati are largely a blank. There are no clues to how William worked his way up from drayman to owner in just six years, or clues to his evident business sense and entrepreneurship. It is unclear whether his financial struggles of the 1870s should be laid to the aftermath of the fire, to effects of the Panic of 1873, or to some other cause. What we know of McRoberts, particularly his audacity and courage in helping escaping slaves, makes us want to know more.