CANAL STREET MARINA — To spectators at Chicago's Venetian Night last month, the Robert Allan II was the hands-down favorite in this year's competition of boats decked out in beautiful lights at Navy Pier.
To historian Geoffrey Baer, host of a series of popular shows on public television on local history, as one of the city’s last working wooden boats, the Robert Allan II was the “perfect” choice from which to film his groundbreaking program, “Chicago by Boat.”
With Venetian Night attracting thousands of people to the lakefront and Baer's show airing on WTTW a regular basis, the Robert Allan II now has a cult following.
“People will pull up and ask, ‘Is that the boat from the Channel 11 show on the Chicago River?' ” said Jack Kraft, one of its five owners. “Canoers and boaters smile and wave as they pass. They will high-five each other and take pictures.”
The boat has actually been a well-known fixture on Chicago’s waterways for decades, serving as the backdrop for wedding and family photos for decades. It was also a star in when Venetian Night attracted tens of thousands to the lakefront.
Built in 1936, it’s one of the oldest active boats in the city.
The 40-foot sedan cruiser is made from Honduran mahogany and other high-quality wood — materials used in very few new boats these days. Fiberglass vessels dominate.
It was built by the Henry Grebe Co., which made hundreds of private yachts and even minesweepers for the U.S. Navy at a location along the North Branch of the Chicago River near Belmont Avenue from the early 1920s to 1970.
Solomon Katz bought the boat in the early 1940s and named it after his sons, Robert and Allan, and kept it at Belmont Harbor. Katz and his wife, Marie Sabath, had deep ties to Chicago. Her uncle A.J. Sabath served the 7th Congressional District in the House of Representatives from 1907-52.
Katz’s father Sam, an immigrant from Lithuania, started Superior Tanning Co. in the early 1880s. Solomon took over the business and his sons joined him after finishing college. It was located on Goose Island, but has since closed.
The Katzes hired Walter "Dutch" Saupe to captain the boat from 1946 to his death in 1982. Saupe had fled his home in Nazi Germany and eventually landed in New York in 1939 before the family brought him to Chicago.
The boat became a second home as the Katz family cruised to points around Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and along the Chicago and Illinois Rivers. They once spent a month in 1947 traveling along the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers.
“Dutch was very conservative in the way he handled the boat and always thought about safety first,” said Allan Katz, who is now 79 and lives in Crown Point, Ind. “We never had an accident."
Saupe stayed in an apartment off Belmont Harbor and even formed a captain’s union in the late 1940s, “the only union made up completely of Republicans,” Katz said.
Meticulous in his care of the boat, Saupe would sand it down and add two coats of varnish to the boat each winter, which gave it a “stately” glow, he said.
“There was a small group of people that were very good with wood,” said Katz. “It was an art and culture onto itself. The boat was like [Saupe’s] child.”
But the family ended up selling the boat in 1984. The Katzes aren't sure what happened to it next.
Toby Lindo sits at the helm of the Robert Allan II. [Seth Anderson]
Ten years later, Toby Lindo, of Albany Park, and Kevin Bowen, of Gold Coast, found it covered with a tarp and dry-docked at the now-closed Action Marine on the South Branch of the Chicago River. When they pulled back the tarp they found the hidden gem.
Along with Kraft, of Barrington, and two others, they bought the boat and fixed it up. In March of 1995, they moved it to Montrose Harbor for its first ride in more than a decade.
“We haven’t looked back in 20 years,” said Lindo, the boat’s captain who lives in Albany Park.
Montrose Harbor was the home of the Heritage Boat Club, which Lindo served as commodore for two years. The club held an annual festival showing off vintage boats that attracted enthusiasts from all over the country.
That’s where WTTW’s Baer found it.
“With my shows, we try to find a mode of transportation that has character to it,” Baer told DNAinfo Chicago. “The Robert Allan II is so photogenic, it looks great on camera.”
He added: “The producer wanted something that could show well on television, looked good in wide shots and was visually interesting. The Robert Allan II was really perfect for all those reasons.”
And Lindo, he said, “is an old salt; having him as the captain was an added bonus.”
For the past five years the boat has been docked at the Canal Street Marina just north of Chinatown. With such an old vessel, there is constant maintenance to keep it in tip-top shape.
“Last year we built a new aft cockpit sole and it was ready before our first cruise,” Lindo said. “The deck is crowned so water doesn’t sit on it. While we had the aft cockpit open, we replaced the 80-gallon steel fuel tanks with two plastic fuel tanks, which hold 60 gallons total. After 77 years, they needed to be replaced.”
In September, the boat won the People's Choice award at Venetian Night, which moved to Navy Pier this year. Judges in the competition gave it third place for its decorations in the theme of Disney's "Frozen."
While boating season wraps up in the next few weeks, in July Lindo drove the boat via a trailer to St. Joseph, Mich., where he put it in the water. But it quickly sprang a leak in the stern, putting in a foot of water.
They fixed the leak and installed an extra pump — and decided to take the trip home by water. The five-hour, 55-mile jaunt was possibly the boat’s longest journey trip in 30 years.
“Things happen; problems creep in just like in life,” said Lindo. “There’s always a test and you don’t know when it’s coming. Once we gave her a little attention, the old girl made it back without a hitch.”
The Robert Allan’s owners wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You can always get a newer boat for millions of dollars that’s bigger and better, but this is something no one else has,” said Kraft.
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