Title: Entrepreneur Sugar Refiner of Philadelphia
Birthdate: April 1, 1832
Death Date: March 9, 1918
Plot Location: March 9, 1918

William J. McCahan, Founder and President of the Wes J. McCahan Sugar Refining Co.

William James McCahan, was born in County Atrim in Northern Ireland to John and Peggy (Taggart) McCaughan.* William was 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.

*It couldn’t be determined when William changed his last name, but it was soon after reaching the U.S.

After obtaining the best education possible in Atrim 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.


Soon, after arriving he 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 relative) 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. which manufactured bags, rope, and twine. McCahan’s objective was to enter the  sugar refining industry. This would ultimately be his life’s work and make him into an important and wealthy man.

McCahan Sugar Refining Co

Sugar is processed by 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 are: (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. McCahan 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 of the cane (and even that step was supplied through a close commercial relationship with a Cuban company, Francisco Sugar Co. run by Manuel Rionda). McCahan 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 U.S. east of the Missouri River from the piers on the Delaware River. The number of employees grew from 40 to 400, and the W. J. McCahan & Co. became a nationwide competitor.

In 1918 William McCahan 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 the site on Columbus Blvd. near Tasker St. where a Walmart Supercenter is now located. If one selects Google Maps/Street View you will see the deteriorating remnants of the 3 piers protruding into the Delaware River.


 McCahan married Sarah B. Cooper in 1858, and they had three children: Margaret (1859), Thomas (1861), and William, Jr (1869). His wife passed in 1872. He married Elizabeth Caldwell in 1877. They had five children: Elizabeth (1879), Elisabeth (1882), Katherine (1884), William (1888), and Mabel (?). His wife lived to 1895.

3419BaringIn 1877 the McCahan’s purchased a home at 3419 Baring Street in the Powelton section of West Philadelphia. Powelton, at that time was a very wealthy neighborhood populated by doctors, attorneys, judges, politicians, and businessmen. If one enters the address on Google Maps/Street View, the house amazingly today looks the same as it did 140 years ago. The family remained in the house until 1920, two years after McCahan’s death

Mr. McCahan was a member of the Powelton Club, a neighboring social organization of about 100 prominent businessmen which existed from 1893 to 1902.

Mr. McCahan died on March 9, 1918 and is interred in Mt Moriah in section 001, lot 9, near the gate house. A tall grave marker in the shape of a woman marks his grave. In the same lot are his two wives, Sarah and Lizzy and some of their children.


Japanese maple tree in front of a monument at Mount Moriah Cemetery

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