Joseph Banigan (1839-1898) and his parents were part of a wave of Irish Catholic refugees who fled the Potato Famine in Ireland. Arriving in Rhode Island in 1847, he attended school for one year before becoming a full-time worker at age nine. Over the next fifty years he employed the “pluck and luck” characteristics of Yankee entrepreneurs to build a local footwear empire before assuming the presidency of the United States Rubber Company in 1893.
Banigan was a youthful apprentice in the jewelry industry before tinkering with rubber products. At the age of twenty-one he discovered a way to bypass the vulcanization patent of Charles Goodyear. By 1867 his skill and charisma raised $100,000 in capital to open the Woonsocket Rubber Company in northern Rhode Island. Banigan employed a progressive agenda ranging from labor relations to the latest production methods to build his venture into the premier establishment of its kind in the United States. When he sold the company in 1893 for an incredible $9,000,000, he was already Rhode Island’s first IrishCatholic millionaire. In 1896, he built Providence’s first “skyscraper,” the ten-story Banigan Building on Weybosset Street.
Banigan’s wealth fueled his penchant for philanthropy, especially for Irish and Catholic causes. He often challenged his fellow Irish parishioners at St. Joseph’s Church on Hope Street in Providence to contribute more. In 1885 Pope Leo XIII recognized that generosity and made Banigan a Knight of St. Gregory–only the second American so honored.
Banigan helped to establish the Home for the Aged Poor, St. Vincent De Paul Infant Asylum, St Joseph’s Hospital, and St. Maria’s Home for Working Girls. He endowed an academic chair at Catholic University and provided scholarships for the first Catholic students at Brown University. He also made generous contributions to the Church of Latter Day Saints. In addition, Irish patriots, who crisscrossed New England during the Gilded Age, always stopped for a conference with Joseph Banigan and usually left with a handsome check.
As an Irishman, Banigan hired hundreds of his countrymen in his mills where they became skilled rubber workers and homeowners at a time when the sobriquet “No Irish Need Apply” ruled in Yankee Rhode Island. Yet, in 1885, the same year Banigan became a Knight of St. Gregory, an ill-advised wage reduction herded his workers into the Knights of Labor in a series of strikes that ended in a compromise.
After selling his rubber footwear facility to the United States Rubber Company, Banigan became president of the emerging cartel. He left in 1896 after the Board of Directors refused to implement his modernization plans. He returned to Providence to start a new footwear company when he died of a diseased gall bladder in 1898. At the time of his death, he served on more than a dozen boards of directors of major companies.