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.
1964 55-foot Flushdeck Pilothouse
The interior of the above 1964 boat
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.

YMS Class
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.

Neil Gale posted

The Henry C. Grebe & Co. Inc. Shipyard was on the Chicago River at Belmont Avenue Building U.S. Navy Ships, across from Riverview Park, that built over 50 Navy Ships.

The shipyard’s existence was the reason that moveable bridges were kept in place on the north branch of the Chicago River. Lots of pictures and a great story to boot! Who knew?
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]

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.
[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.]

Photo from MaritimeMuseum
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.

1938 Aerial Photo from ILHAP
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.

MWRD posted
The North Branch of the Chicago River, looking north from the west side of the Belmont Avenue Bridge, showing boats and a ship repair yard on May 27, 1920.
Charles M. LaBow: Also, in the distance, the smokestacks of the Commonwealth Edison, Northwestern Generating Station and the lift structure of the Shoot-the-Chutes at Riverview Park.

MWRD posted
The North Branch of the Chicago River, looking north from the west side of the Belmont Avenue bridge showing a shipyard and boats on October 8, 1925.

Lance Grey commented on MWRD's post
Smokestacks of Northwest Power station @ Roscoe & California seen in lots of Riverview pics. Grebe shipyard did major work for the Navy.
Dennis DeBruler
Lance Grey Grebe's main business was custom luxury wooden yachts.
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.

A sampling of the Grebe yachts. Except for the Wanigan III at the end, I have sorted the photos into chronological order.
Lock Lomond, 1948, 67 foot

Full Moon, 1948

1950 55-foot flushdeck

Millie Jean, 1959
Lady Grebe, 1961, 48-foot yacht with a mahogany deck
(new window)

1965 55-foot Flushdeck
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.
An article about Jerry Lewis selling his 1959 65-foot Grebe yacht also has three interior shots as well as a 3/4 exterior view.


  1. 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.

    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?

    1. Thanks for the details.


  2. 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.
    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 if this doesn't get posted for editing

  3. 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?