Wednesday, March 25, 2020

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

In 1926 the former "Great Lakes Boat Building Corporation" of Milwaukee 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

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 with capacities to 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. 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), but according to the Chicago Maritime Museum which holds the Grebe archives, they never built any PT boats.
The shipyard’s existence was the reason that 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.
After the war was over, Grebe returned his business to mostly building pleasure craft for such Chicago luminaries as Philip Wrigley and Sterling Morton of Morton Salt. They also built some powerboats for the Chicago Police Department.

When Grebe passed away in 1952, his widow Marguerite took over operations, which was unusual enough at the time 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.

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

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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