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Chasing the Half-Moon

Bill Rossberger spent more than 30 years looking for Franklin D. Roosevelt's schooner. Last month he found it--sort of.



Bill Rossberger has spent much of his life either on Lake Michigan or looking at it. He and his wife, Bonnie, live next door to me in a third-floor apartment across the street from Rogers Avenue Beach. The walls of their living room are covered with sailing prints, and there's a telescope in the corner so he can see what's passing by on the lake. A retired salesman for Inland Steel, which owned a large fleet of ore boats, Rossberger still likes to watch the "lakers" slide along the horizon. Sometimes he knocks on my door when there's a beautiful orange moonrise and tells me to go to the window and have a look. "Every morning and every evening I look out at the lake," he told me once. "It just gets into your spirit."

Rossberger began sailing when he was nine years old. He and a pal built a boat out of scrap lumber and took it to Diversey Harbor, where it immediately sank. Some members of the Lincoln Park Boat Club saw the boys and invited them aboard one of their better-built vessels. Rossberger bought his first sailboat in 1968, and nine years later he was elected commodore of the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club.

While he held that office Rossberger learned that his club had been founded aboard a schooner once owned by Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the early years of his relationship with Eleanor, Roosevelt sailed the boat, the Half-Moon, in the Bay of Fundy, dressed in a blazer and tie and cooking pancakes, sausages, and lobsters for his companions. He sold it in 1920, just before his unsuccessful campaign for vice president, and it eventually came into the hands of a man named Ralph Langley, who renamed it the Gaviota and sailed it to a third-place finish in the 1924 Chicago to Mackinac race.

Langley later sold the boat to a pair of wealthy Chicagoans, lawyer Dick Frankenstein and developer Bill Ahern. They also sailed it in the Mac, though with less success, and in 1934, during a round of beers on a trip back from Michigan, they formed the Corinthian club.

When Rossberger heard that story 30 years ago he decided the boat must still be somewhere in Chicago, and in an attempt to find it he searched through newspaper clippings, bought books about FDR at secondhand stores, talked to fellow sailors. Two years ago he finally located Dr. Christian Lyngby Jr., the son of the boat's last known owner.

"My father bought the boat in 1939," says Lyngby, a retired anesthesiologist now living in Georgia. "My dad was an absolute Roosevelt fanatic. He had lost a boat the year before. Originally he just wanted the wheel, but Bill Ahern wouldn't part with it because it was Roosevelt's boat. So my dad bought the boat for $2,000."

That was a bargain for a sailboat, but it was a lot of money for an orchestra teacher at Lindblom High School. Lyngby says his father didn't care. "He said, 'If these walls could talk, I'd be a zillionaire. This is the one that he courted Eleanor on.' I was told--and I don't have documentation--that when dad bought the boat he wrote Roosevelt a letter, and he got a letter back saying he was glad the old Half-Moon was back in commission and good luck."

By then the Gaviota was 40 years old and infested with dry rot, which had caused a 15-foot-long crack in the hull. "Dad said, 'I can take care of it,'" Lyngby recalls. "He replaced a section of the boat every year." Lynbgy's father chartered the boat for pleasure cruises--$1.50 per couple for three or four hours on the lake. In 1940 he sailed it in the Mac but never crossed the finish line. The boat was caught in a storm off Grand Traverse Bay and had to be towed into Charlevoix.

On August 27, 1944, during Roosevelt's final campaign for president, Lyngby's father took a charter group out for an evening sail. It was stormy, so the Gaviota returned to Monroe Harbor before the allotted three hours were up.

Just after midnight the rope connecting the boat to its mooring can snapped in a strong wind. The Gaviota drifted to shore, where the waves smashed it against the rocks. When the harbormaster called at 1 AM, Lyngby's father raced up from his home near 95th and Stony Island. It was too late. "He started up the boat's engine just like a firecracker," says Lyngby, "and she went about 15 to 20 feet and sank."

After a week of trying to raise the boat Lyngby's father gave up and had it towed up the south branch of the Chicago River. In the late 1800s the river had bristled with slips that had been dug to accommodate the lumber ships that sailed from Michigan and Wisconsin bearing the timbers that rebuilt the city after the Great Fire. But by 1944 the north woods were logged out, and the slips were being reclaimed. The Gaviota was towed to the DuPont slip, just east of the Halsted Street bridge. The northern half of the slip had already been filled in, and the DuPonts had built a munitions factory on it. The southern half was scheduled to be filled in, but Lyngby's father was allowed to scuttle his boat there.

He salvaged the spars, the mast, the boom, and the skylight, all of which he gave to a sailing partner who said he could use the wood on his farm. He kept only the compass, which now belongs to his son. "We never used it because he never got another boat," says Lyngby. "He couldn't afford one. It just sat in a box for all these years."

Once Rossberger had pieced together the story, he had to figure out exactly where the slip would have been. Two years later he thought he knew.

In mid-February he and his wife drove down to Pilsen and parked in the lot of the Chicago Fire Department Clothing Center, where firefighters pick up their uniforms--the last building on the east side of Halsted before it crosses the river. Rossberger, dressed in Top-Siders and a yachting windbreaker on the 30-degree day, stalked across the brown lawn between the building and the river.

"We're in luck!" he shouted, peering into the water. "This is the stub of an old canal. See the wooden pilings under the water? This is the canal--this is the stub of the DuPont canal. The boat would be right here--under this building."

A fire official appeared on the riverbank. "You're going to have to see a man named David Rubin if you want to be here," he told Rossberger. "He owns this property. He's at 2241 S. Halsted. It's three or four hundred yards up the street."

Rubin Brothers is a garment factory located behind an anonymous door in the brick building that once housed the DuPont munition works. David Rubin invited Rossberger into his office and was as patient as a man can be when he's constantly taking phone calls from the cutting-room floor.

Rossberger told Rubin about the lumber ships, the slips, and the DuPonts. "Now, am I taking too much of your time?" he asked.

"No, no," Rubin said. "This is interesting."

A little reluctantly, Rossberger told him about Roosevelt's boat. Rubin was only the fifth person on earth to learn the story--not even the Roosevelts knew what had become of their patriarch's schooner.

Rubin then told Rossberger the story of the building that marks the Half-Moon's grave. "It was built in the 1940s," he said, right around the time Christian Lyngby Sr. towed his boat into the slip. "It was owned by a man named Sid Graham, who invented flexible-neck straws. His company was called National Soda Straw."

The railroad tracks that ran alongside the slips brought in boxcars full of plastic beads to be melted into straws. Rubin tore up the tracks after he bought the building from the ribbon manufacturer that succeeded National Soda Straw. "When the property becomes more valuable and we tear it down," Rubin said, "you can get the boat."

"Well, I appreciate that," Rossberger said. "You know, I've got a big collection of Chicago maritime history in my basement. I'd like to have you over sometime to look at it."

"I may take you up on that," Rubin said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Bill Rossberger; from FDR: A Pictorial Biography by Stefan Lorant.

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