Title: Entrepreneur, Sugar Refiner
Birthdate: April 1, 1832
Death Date: March 9, 1918
Plot Location: Section 1, Lot 9
William was born in County Antrim in Northern Ireland to John and Peggy (Taggart) McCaughan, the youngest of seven children. He was a descendent of distinguished Scottish ancestors who settled in the Ulster Plantation in the sixteenth century. At the time of his death a contemporary biographer wrote that his life was a brilliant career of accomplishment in American history.
After obtaining the best education possible in Antrim he was employed as a superintendent on his father’s farm. At the age of 19 he began to realize that with his ambition a better opportunity probably existed across the Atlantic in the United States. He immigrated to Philadelphia in 1851 and soon changed his name to McCahan.
FROM FURNITURE TO SUGAR
William set up shop as a cabinet maker and then established himself as a senior partner in a furniture business named McCahan and Cooper. In 1866 he formed a partnership with Jonathan McCahan (no relation) and Thomas Cooper under the name of W. J. McCahan as a wholesale grocer.
In 1872 he purchased a building along the Delaware River waterfront equipped with 3 piers (numbers 67, 68, and 69) that was owned by John T. Bailey and Co. that manufactured bags, rope, and twine. William’s objective was to enter the sugar refining industry. This would ultimately be his life’s work and made him an important and wealthy man.
Sugar was made in a series of steps that were often done by individual companies who then sold their product to a company up the manufacturing chain. The steps were: (1) growing and harvesting the sugar cane, (2) processing the cane by cutting and pressing the liquid into raw sugar, (3) processing the molasses into low grade sugar, and (4) refining the sugar. William would be entering the process at step 3.
In 1893 his facility was upgraded to process all the steps in the refining of sugar except the growing and harvesting. That step was supplied through a close commercial relationship with a Cuban company, Francisco Sugar Co. William also incorporated the original wholesale grocery division into the sugar company, thus making the company into a fully integrated enterprise. Most of the supplies and raw materials were shipped in and finished products were shipped out to customers all over the country east of the Mississippi River from the piers on the Delaware River. The number of employees grew from 40 to 400, and W. J. McCahan & Co. became a nationwide competitor.
This newspaper clipping is from 1918, the year William died, and in 1920 the family sold the business to Czarnikow-Rionda and it became the W. J. McCahan Sugar Refining and Molasses Co. In 1944 the business was sold to the American Sugar Refining Co. and the name was changed to the Philadelphia Refining Co.
The plant was located on Columbus Blvd. near Tasker St. where a Walmart Supercenter is now located. The deteriorating remnants of the three piers can still be seen protruding into the Delaware River.
William’s business relationship with Thomas Cooper led to a romantic relationship with his sister, Sarah Cooper. That relationship became matrimony in 1858. A result of that union was the births of four children: Margaret (1859), Thomas (1861), John (1863), and William, Jr (1869). John died of croup one year after his birth.
Sarah died in 1872, so William married Elizabeth Caldwell in 1877. They had three children: the first was Elizabeth or “Lizzie,” (1879). Anna Isabelle (1882) and John (1884) were both born premature and didn’t survive. Then William’s wife died in 1885. Being 20 years older than her half-sister, Margaret essentially became the mother to Lizzie, and the family also had a live-in servant.
In 1877 the McCahans purchased a home at 3419 Baring Street in the Powelton section of West Philadelphia. At that time Powelton was a very wealthy neighborhood of doctors, attorneys, judges, politicians, and businessmen. William was a member of the Powelton Club, a neighborhood social organization of about 100 prominent businessmen that met in the 1890s.
William died at age 85 and is buried in section 1, lot 9, near the gate house. A tall statue of a woman gazes westward from the city, as if to imagine all the places McCahan sugar was sold. In front of the statue are “cradle graves” for William, first wife Sarah, second wife Lizzie, daughter Margaret, and the two premature infants, Anna and John.
Support the Friends of Mount Moriah
Help us in our mission to restore and maintain the beautiful Mount Moriah Cemetery by donating to our cause or volunteering at one of our clean-up events.