Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Houseboats on the Chicago River; The history of living on the river.

Over the course of Chicago's history, people have lived in their ships and boats for a variety of reasons. Ship captains and their crews have often wintered in their vessels on area waterways. Other ship and boat owners have lived on their vessels due to financial troubles or simply a desire to live away from most other Chicagoans. While people have lived in boats and ships in Chicago-area rivers and streams across the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, it was during the Great Depression of the 1930s that some Chicagoans retreated to houseboats, particularly on the north branch of the Chicago River, due to economic necessity, nicknamed "Boatville."
Houseboats on the North Branch of the Chicago River at Belmont Avenue with Riverview in the background. 1927
George Wellington Streeter and his family are perhaps among the most notorious families to live on a ship at Chicago. In 1886, Streeter's small ship ran aground on a sandbar just off the shoreline on Near North Side and his family took up residence there. Over time, lake currents and garbage had created 186 acres of landfill that Streeter claimed as his own and named his property the "District of Lake Michigan." He moved from his shipwrecked boat to a small landed structure. Streeter and his family pursued their claims in court, but were evicted from the property during World War I by Mayor Bill Thompson for selling liquor. The entire Streeter story.
This photograph shows Mrs. George Wellington Streeter on her houseboat in 1922, the year after her husband died. The boat was moored adjacent to the Ogden Slip, just north of the mouth of the Chicago River.
At the colony’s peak during the Great Depression, more than a hundred houseboats, many converted scows, lined the banks of the river from about Montrose Avenue down to about Addison Street.

It was cheap! Houseboat living was a way to avoid things like real estate taxes and high rents, not to mention that housing was scarce. One newspaper article said that residents paid an average of a dollar a month to moor their houseboats, which had many of the comforts of houses on land. Some boats were wired for electricity and were hooked up to city plumbing; others used generators. Many heated their floating homes with oil stoves during the winter. There was even a houseboat bar for a time, which the law shut down.
In this photograph, taken along the north branch of the Chicago River at Western Avenue in 1927, houseboats seem a part of the residential neighborhood seen in the background.
The question of the houseboats’ legality was about as murky as the river water. When the squatters’ camp started growing during the ‘20s, the city’s Sanitary District tried to evict the occupants, citing water pollution and navigation concerns. When a judge issued an injunction preventing the houseboats from being ousted in 1930, the colony grew. The Sanitary District of Chicago had by then completed its channelization project along the north branch which connected to the North Shore Channel. 
Houseboats on the North Branch of Chicago River.
Boatville was mostly an adult community—many of the residents were retired boatmen, ex-sailors, and streetcar motormen. By the 1950s, most of the houseboats had vanished from the North Branch. Those that were left by the 1970s were confronted with increased pollution and permitting regulations. Even so, there were a couple of holdouts on the North Branch as recently as the 1990s.
Houseboats on the north branch of the Chicago River. 1941
Even today, according to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, houseboats are not strictly illegal—but they are heavily regulated.

ADDITIONAL READING: The Henry C. Grebe & Co. Inc. Shipyard was on the Chicago River at Belmont Avenue Building U.S. Navy Ships.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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