Shipbuilding in Chicago has always been tied to the city's status as a port. When Chicago flourished as a port it was the site of a thriving shipbuilding industry. As the port has waned so has shipbuilding.
The first ship built in Chicago, the Clarissa, was begun in the spring of 1835 by Nelson R. Norton, but was not completed, or launched, until May 18, 1836. The Detroit, Capt. John Crawford, was built at Milwaukee in 1836-37 for the Chicago trade, at a cost of $50,000. This vessel was lost off Kenosha, Wisconsin in November, 1837, after only six months service. Around 1836, an association of the then young, energetic and enterprising citizens was formed, and they commenced the building of the steamer James Allen. It was completed in 1838, Capt. C. H. Case having charge of its construction. The shipyard was on "Goose Island." The Allen was built to be fast, and to run across Lake Michigan from St. Joseph to Chicago, in connection with the stage and mail line. Her hull was narrow and sharp in form, and light in material.' Two powerful, low pressure, horizontal engines were put on the guards, on the main deck. The boilers were small, and, on trial, proved to be in sufficient. When the Jim Allen had steam up and started on her trial trip for St. Joseph, she went out of Chicago at a speed that pleased, as well as astonished, her owner and designer. The first fourteen miles were run inside of an hour. Then the engines began to " slow up, " and the voyage took about ten hours. Every effort was made to keep up the supply of steam to the two large engines, but the result was the same as experienced during the outward trip. To use the expression of her commander, she would run the first thirty minutes "like a skeered dog," then her speed would gradually slacken to about seven miles an hour, and nothing could coax her to do any better. For two seasons, notwithstanding the utmost exertions taken, there was no improvement in the Allen's average rate of speed, and she was then sold and taken to the lower lakes.
The George W. Dole was also built by Captain Case, soon after the completion of the James Allen, and the two ran together over the St. Joseph and Michigan City route. The former was sunk at Buffalo, in 1856, having previously been changed into a sailing vessel. These were the first and only steamers built in Chicago previous to 1842. In 1842 Capt. James Averell established a shipyard, on the North side, just below Rush street bridge, and very soon after Thomas Lamb commenced business near the same place. The shipyards of Chicago were now beginning to present unusual signs of activity. In 1845 there were constructed the schooners Maria Hilliard, J. Young Scammon, and Ark; in 1846 the barque Utica, brig Ellen Parker, and schooner N. C. Walton. In 1847 eighty schooners had been, or were being built in Chicago, one brig and one propeller—the A. Rosseter—a total tonnage of 4,833. Nineteen schooners, one propeller and one brig owned by Chicago people. The leading ship-builders at this time were Jordan, Miller & Conners. The latter afterward formed a partnership with Riordan & Dunn, on the South side, near the VanBuren street bridge.
By the late 1840s, 82 ships had been built in the city, the overwhelming majority of them schooners. Shipbuilding was of great importance in Chicago during the period 1850 to 1875, when Chicago was the busiest port city in the United States. Wooden ships, both steam and sail, made up the bulk of the lake commercial fleet. Shipbuilders were attracted to Chicago because of its busy port and the fact that it was the lumber center of America. Scores of shipyards were located both along the North Branch and the South Branch of the Chicago River.
The largest and most important shipbuilder was Miller Brothers & Co., located on the Chicago River just above the Chicago Avenue Bridge. The firm built steamships, tugs, canal boats, and schooners. When the shipping industry was booming the Miller Brothers dry docks, the largest on Lake Michigan, were constantly occupied with ships being rebuilt while carpenters were busy with one or more new ships. The busiest time of year for new ship construction was in the late winter and early spring. Sailors idled by the close of shipping joined with the professional ships' carpenters and caulkers to finish new vessels before the navigation season began again in April.
William Wallace Bates, the most influential shipbuilder working on the Great Lakes during the age of sail, operated a shipyard in Chicago in the 1860s and 1870s. Bates turned out a series of clipper schooners renowned for their carrying capacity and speed. Even more important than new shipbuilding was the city's role as a place to repair or rebuild existing ships. With as many as five hundred vessels annually wintering in the Chicago River, the shipyards of the city were kept busy maintaining the fleet. The ship chandlers of the city were also extremely important, as they supplied sails and cordage to the bulk of the Lake Michigan marine.
The decline of wooden shipbuilding brought the decline of Chicago as a construction site. The Chicago River was too small to serve as a building site for the four- and five-hundred-foot-long steel ships demanded by the grain and iron ore trade in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chicago River shipyards remained active by focusing on small boat or yacht construction. During World War II the Henry Grebe shipyard, on the North Branch of the river, produced the last wooden ships built in Chicago-minesweepers for the U.S. Navy. By that time the servicing and construction of large vessels shifted with the bulk of the city's commercial traffic to the Calumet Region.
The Chicago Shipbuilding Company was the most important of the steel shipbuilding firms in Chicago. Founded in 1890 as a subsidiary of the Globe Iron Works of Cleveland, the company launched in its inaugural year the Marina, the first steel-hulled ship built on Lake Michigan. By 1899 the company was widely regarded as the most progressive and prolific shipbuilder on the Great Lakes. In that year, the company merged with the other large steel shipbuilders on the lakes to form the American Shipbuilding Company. Under the control of the new company the Chicago yards continued to produce new ships, although repair and conversion became an increasingly important part of their business.
Chicago shipyards produced vessels for federal service in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. With the advent of vessels over a thousand feet long, fewer and fewer ships were capable of meeting the needs of lake commerce. The American Shipbuilding Company limited its Chicago yard to smaller jobs such as scows and barges-taking advantage of Chicago's location at the meeting place of the Mississippi and Great Lakes waterways.
|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.|
The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 promised a resurgence of the shipping industry in Chicago. Any resurgence was forestalled, however, by the limited size of the seaway's locks and by federal shipping policy. By the late twentieth century, shipbuilding had ceased to be an important activity not only in Chicago but on Lake Michigan.