These are notes that I am writing to help me learn our industrial history. They are my best understanding, but that does not mean they are a correct understanding.
Saturday, November 10, 2018
Grebe Shipyard on the North Branch of the Chicago River
(Satellite, the site is now occupied by a townhouse development north of Belmont and between Washtenaw and the river. According to a 1938 aerial photo, some of the land north and to the west was also part of the shipyard.)
The bridges along the North Branch used to be movable up to, and including, Belmont Avenue. Grebe Shipyard took advantage of this navigation channel because they built some fairly large boats. It used to specialize in building custom luxury wooden yachts. They used exotic woods like teak and mahogany.
And the mahogany was not just for interior use. This boat was listed for $134,500. The listing indicated the hull material was "Double Planked Mahogany" and the deck material was Teak.
A Chicago Tribune article says the shipyard produced 200 luxury boats since it opened in 1926. But ShipBuildingHistory shows it producing boats since 1916. I reconciled these dates when I learned the company started in Milwaukee and then moved to Chicago. And it started with the name Great Lakes Boat Building.
I found someone's recollection that it closed in 1995. [YachtForums, Jeff Ondrla]
MWRD posted A view to the east showing a shipyard on the west side of the North Branch of the Chicago River, just north of Belmont Avenue, on February 11, 1922. Some of the rides at Riverview Park are visible in the background.
I first learned about this shipyard because they made minesweepers during WWII and the Navy installed machinery in the railroad swing bridges on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal so that they could be opened to allow the minesweepers to get to the ocean via the Mississippi River. (The St. Lawrence Seaway would not open until 1959. The Navy also shipped other ships from Great Lakes shipyards down the Mississippi River such as Manitowoc Submarines.) I dug through a lot of luxury yacht photos before I figured out how to search for photos of mine sweepers. A collection of photos of their yachts is at the end of these notes.
The Navy wanted to build ships inland to avoid German U-boats. Sometimes they built a shipyard from scratch like the LST shipyard in Seneca, IL. In the case of Grebe, they just had to change the product line. I can't determine if the hull of the YMS class of minesweepers was steel or wood. I remember reading that Grebe was chosen to build wooden minesweepers because of their expertise and tooling to make wooden hulls. But a reference indicates that magnetic mines, and thus wooden hulled minesweepers, were not developed until the Korean War.
Displacement is 270 British tonnes, length is 136', and the crew was 32 men. It had 2 shafts and 2000 hp. 494 ships of this class were built, which was, by far, the largest class.
YMS-84 was the first minesweeper built at Grebe. It was order 4-1-1941, the hull was laid down 6-2-1941, it was launched 3-3-1942, and it was commissioned 5-23-1942 [YMS-84]. I assume the period between launch and commissioning is when it made its trip between the North Branch of the Chicago River to the Gulf of Mexico. The last, and 25th, minesweeper built for the Navy by Grebe was YMS-421. It was ordered 7-21-1943 and commissioned 3-3-1945.
The YMS-84 was laid down on June 2, 1941, by Henry C. Grebe and Co., Chicago, IL. Launched March 3, 1942, and was completed May 23, 1942. The USS YMS-84 was a YMS-1 Class Auxiliary Motor Minesweeper built for the United States Navy and commissioned into service in May 1942. Notable for being the first US Navy Vessel built in Illinois during the Second World War, the YMS-84 and her crew steamed down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then into the Gulf of Mexico, where she began training and convoy escort duties through early 1943.
It struck me that minesweepers are one of the few military assets that continue to do their primary job after a war is won. A lot of mines had to be removed from the English Channel. During the war, they just cleared lanes across the channel.
During the Korean War, they built 3 more that were delivered in 1953-54. [ShipBuildingHistory] So the photo below would be of one of the three ships for the Korean War. During WWII, they also built 20 tugs, and in 1945 they delivered four water tankers that had a displacement of 440 tons and were 174' long. [ShipBuildingHistory]
Encyclopedia.ChicagoHistory U.S. Navy minesweeper under construction at Henry C. Grebe & Co. shipyard on the west bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River, June 1952.
Photographer: Louis F. Zimmerman
Source: Chicago Historical Society (ICHi-37004)
[We can see they built them from the bow backwards. I don't see any cranes big enough to lift in pre-built modules like they developed for Liberty Ships.]
The above photo was driving me nuts. I already knew the power plant that we see on the left is west of the river. From the middle to the right background is obviously an amusement park. I have confirmed that it was Riverview. It was on the right side of the river. That means we are looking north. And the photo must have been taken with a really wide-angle lens. But I was curious how they were going to get the land-locked boat on the left into the river. In the following full resolution excerpt from a 1938 aerial, the big boats were built by the river. It looks like they built the smaller boats on transfer platforms. When done, I presume they moved the platform to the north/south "white strip" and then north to the boat ramp that lowered them into the water.
By 1952, the site looked completely different. The part to the west of the "white strip" may have been sold to others because that part changed between 1952 and 1962. The remaining site looked about the same in 1962, 1972 and 1988. It was cleared in 1999. But the part that changed between 1952 and 1962 looked the same in 1999.
They built 25 of the 494 YMS class minesweepers built for WWII. They had steel hulls because magnetic mines, and wooden hulled minesweepers, were not developed until the Korea War.
Lance Grey commented on Dennis' comment Thanks for the reminder, Dennis; The pic I put with the line of ships was probably a courtesy stop for a Photo-Op. I've seen this one posted by Riverview too. Otherwise just the abandoned houseboat junkers.
THE HENRY C. GREBE & CO. INC. SHIPYARD WAS ON THE CHICAGO RIVER AT BELMONT AVENUE BUILDING U.S. NAVY SHIPS.
In 1926, Milwaukee's former "Great Lakes Boat Building Corporation" became the "Henry C. Grebe & Co. Inc. Shipyard" and moved to Chicago. The shipyard was over eight acres on the north branch of the Chicago River at 3250 North Washtenaw Avenue, across the river from the famous Riverview Park [also here].
Before World War II, Grebe (Gree-be) produced sail yachts and powerboats for exclusive clientele.
During WWII, Grebe built various wood and steel vessels for the Navy. The yard had cranes to lift 50 tons and a complete inter-yard rail system throughout. There was storage for 400 yachts.
During the war, the shipyard built over 56 ships, wood, and steel, for the U.S. Navy, including 21 tugboats, 4 tankers, and 28 minesweepers (aka auxiliary motor minesweepers). These vessels were used in detecting mines laid by enemy submarines, and their wooden hulls helped prevent the explosion of nearby magnetic-triggered mines.
This is a 1943 panorama of the Grebe Shipyard, which operated from 1926 to 1994. The former Riverview Park is visible in the background of this photograph. In the foreground, several U.S. Navy vessels are under construction.
Rumor has it that Grebe built PT boats (small patrol boats, the most famous, PT-109, was commanded by Lieutenant John F. Kennedy). According to the Chicago Maritime Museum, which holds the Grebe archives, they never built PT boats.
The shipyard's existence was why moveable bridges were kept in place on the north branch of the Chicago River because the bridges needed to open to let the Grebe-built craft to lake Michigan.
Grebe shipyard looking east across Chicago River. Note Riverview Park's rides, Shoot the Chutes and The Bobs roller coaster in the background, circa 1928.📷The YMS-84 was laid down on June 2, 1941, by Henry C. Grebe and Co., Chicago, IL. Launched March 3, 1942, and was completed May 23, 1942. The USS YMS-84 was a YMS-1 Class Auxiliary Motor Minesweeper built for the United States Navy and commissioned into service in May 1942. Notable for being the first US Navy Vessel built in Illinois during the Second World War, the YMS-84 and her crew steamed down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then into the Gulf of Mexico, where she began training and convoy escort duties through early 1943.
After the war, Grebe returned his business to mostly building pleasure craft for such Chicago luminaries as Philip Wrigley and Sterling Morton of Morton Salt. They also made some powerboats for the Chicago Police Department.
When Grebe passed away in 1952, his widow Marguerite took over operations, which was unusual enough to merit a couple of newspaper articles about her. As time went on, the interest in these high-end yachts waned. She ran the company until they completed their last boat in 1972. The company continued to operate at the site until 1994, providing boat maintenance and storage. The land was worth more than the business.
Today the site is occupied by the Belmont River Club townhomes.
I don't know how permanent sales links are. So this Wanigan III link is an experiment: a 1949 76-foot yacht. The link accesses a lot of interior shots, including the engine room and crew bunks. I did copy a couple of photos in case the link breaks.
In case the link does break, I saved this image.
In case the link does break, I also saved this image.
Liked your blog. You got a lot of the history correct. Most war ships were built bow pointed South and of course stern to the North. They were built on rails and launched sideways into the river.ReplyDelete
The yachts were built in one of the buildings and moved down to a rail slip. In one of your pictures you can see the derik crain and notch in the shoreline.
Again the ships were all built bow South as after they were launched there was no place to turn the ship around in the narrow river.
Have you done any research on the power plant located North/Northwest, Commonwealth Edison?
Thanks for the details.Delete
Have a couple of things to add and correct for you if interested. Worked at the yard as a teenager in the 50's. example, the photo of the Millie Jean is from my personal collection, and is signed by the yard Superintendant then, Corey Berg-Olsen who was not only my boss but a personal friend.ReplyDelete
The Pics of the Westlake the 55 shown twice, was built in 1964. That was the last boat we worked on, but have been aboard in the last 5 years. Many Grebe's are still afloat, and there are 3 possibly a 4th in Chicago currently.
email is firstname.lastname@example.org if this doesn't get posted for editing
Hello from 2021 Florida; the photo of YMS84 shows the boat has a traditional squared head timber in the centerlinne (top of stem, or stem post). There would be no good reason to duplicate this form in a steel boat. Comments?ReplyDelete