Captain John L. Roper
CAPT. JOHN L. ROPER,. In the lumber industry of the South one of the most conspicuous figures was the late Capt. John L. Roper. His interests covered a large territory, but they reflected in increasing measure a constant flow of prosperity toward Norfolk, a city which was his home and which his constructive enterprise helped to make one of the great commercial centers of the Atlantic seaboard.
Captain Roper was born at Greenwood, Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, October 9, 1835. His father, Richard B. Roper, was a native of England, and settled in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. He married Esther Ann Reynolds, of Philadelphia., and they became the parents of two sons: William B. and John L., and a daughter, Mary Matilda. Both sons became Union soldiers.
John Lonsdale Roper was an infant when his father (lied. He grew up in Pennsylvania, and his schooling ended at the age of thirteen, and after that for several years he earned his living as clerk in a general store. At the age of twenty-one he started for California to satisfy his love of adventure and his quest for gold and treasure. He went by the Panama route, and in the mining regions met with only moderate success, though his arduous experience did much to develop his latent talents of enterprise and a courage to fight his battles unafraid of adversity or difficulty. When he returned to Pennsylvania in 1861 the Civil war had broken out, and he at once enlisted in the Eleventh Pennsylvania Cavalry. He followed the fortunes of the Union flag through four years of the war, until March, 1865, rose front the ranks to captain. for “gallant and meritorious conduct,” and was mustered. out major by brevet.
Captain Roper’s youth hall been spent in a great trine and hemlock district of Pennsylvania, and he had become familiar with the values of standing timber. During the war he had been nearly the whole time in Virginia, and had become familiar with the great timber tracts of this state, particularly in. the Southeastern part and the adjoining part of North Carolina. With his western experience added he could fairly judge of the great value of this forest region, and also that Norfolk was the strategic point ;at which to center a great manufacturing and export lumber business. In 1865 he moved his residence to Norfolk and began lumbering operations in Princess Anne County, at a point twenty-four miles distant from where the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal entered the North Landing River. He erected a saw mill at that point, equipped with the best circular saw system, having an annual producing capacity of 6,000,000 feet. He specialized in North Carolina pine, as grade of lumber that had not at that time the high reputation it deserved, nor which it has since attained. The lumber he carefully-!p prepared in dry kilns for the market, being a pioneer in the use of dry kilns also. He personally supervised every detail of the purchase of raw material, its conversion into lumber, and its marketing until the business grew to such proportions that this was impossible. Little by little he expanded, larger and larger tracts of timber land were purchased; additional mills for manufacturing lumber were erected; railroads necessary to connect forests and mills were built; mills for the manufacture of related interests were erected along the railroads, canals and rivers, all owned and controlled by the great Roper company. This continued with Captain Roper the active head until the summer of 1905, when he retired from active business, turning over to the succeeding; company above a. quarter of :t million acres of timber land, owner in fee simple; many lines of railroad, one of thirty miles in length; five large ])lards, one just outside the city limits of Norfolk, one at Roper, North Carolina, another at Winthrop, North Carolina, each equal in size to the Norfolk plant; another plant turning out nothing but juniper lumber, another making the “Roper Cedar Shingles,” and many smaller mills, variously located, the total annual capacity being 50,000,000 feet of manufactured limber. Nor does this statement properly demonstrate the value of Captain Roper’s far-sighted operations. During all these years vast sums had been expended in wages, new industries, with which he was unconnected, stimulated, and prosperity brought to a large section of country, and to thousands of families. He early adopted a liberal policy in dealing with communities and with men, and to this he steadily adhered, hence when the Roper Company prospered, and prospered; his success not being built upon the fallen fortunes of others, but upon the prosperity of all.
In the meantime Captain Roper had also become vice president of the Virginia Savings Bank and Trust Company, the Lumberman’s Marine .Insurance Company the Seaboard Fire Insurance Company, and other commercial organizations. He served several years as a member of the City Council of Norfolk, and always retained his allegiance to the republican party. He was a member of the Chamber of Commerce. In Masonry he attained the thirty-third, supreme honorary degree in the Scottish Rite, and was at leader in the building of the Norfolk Masonic temple.
Exceedingly liberal with his personal influence and his means, he helped to finance the Woman’s College of Norfolk, organized and for years served as president of the United Charities, and was prominent in the Methodist Episcopal Church.
In June, 1865, Captain Roper married Lydia H. Bowen, of Philadelphia. They became the parents of six children, the three sons being George W., William Bryham and Albert Lonsdale Roper, all natives of Norfolk and conspicuous in the affairs of that city. A sketch follow tug describes the career of the youngest scar, Albert L. Roper, a Norfolk attorney. George W. Roper was educated in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, was associated with the Roper lumber interests and became the head of several large manufacturing, transportation and industrial enterprises. William R. Roper was also identified with the Roper Lumber Company, and subsequently became secretary and treasurer of the North Carolina Pine Association.