Lost Jacksonville: Gibbs Corporation Shipyards

Formerly referred to as the epicenter of the "Billion Dollar Mile", the shipyards has become known as a place of dead urban development dreams. Before it was a vacant waterfont parcel, the site was the home of one of Jacksonville's largest companies for more than a century.

Published March 12, 2013 in History - MetroJacksonville.com

Ships under construction at Gibbs Gas Engine Company shipyard in 1918. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/142069

The story of Gibbs dates back to 1908 when the company was founded by a 20s something Georgia Tech graduate named George Williams Gibbs. A pioneer Jacksonville shipbuilder, Gibbs created an engine that used half the fuel of other engines of the day and began building ship hulls on reclaimed swamp he acquired along the Southbank riverfront at the present day site of the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

By World War I, the shipyard had grown to become a major employer building 16 Sub Chasers for the U.S. Navy.

In 1924, Gibbs took over the struggling Florida Ferry Company and made it a profitable business operating between the Northbank's Main Street and the Southbank. During the 1930s, he championed for the construction of a second river bridge, leading to the construction of the Main Street Bridge in 1941 and ceasing of his ferry operation. By this time, the shipyard had increased in size, virtually occupying the riverfront from the Main Street Bridge to the former Florida East Coast terminal yards and freight houses (present day Wyndham Hotel).

Cargo ship "F.C. Randall" being christened at Gibbs Shipyard on October 1, 1946. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/66725

Aerial view overlooking the Gibbs Corporation shipyard on September 3, 1947. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/166955

During World War II, the Gibbs shipyard built Minesweepers, Covered Lighters, Sub Chasers and tugs for the US Navy and barges and Sea Skiffs for the US Army. In 1942, sultry Paramount actress Veronica Lake visited the shipyard to christen the USS Lone Wolf, calling it the thrill of her lifetime. The 1950s saw the construction of the Jacksonville Expressway system. Railyards leading to the Gibbs shipyard would leave a lasting impression on this highway network in the form of Interstate 95's Overland Bridge.

Several of Suzanna Saunders' models in a speedboat at Gibbs Shipyard in 1946. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/65844

Aerial view of Gibbs Corporation shipyard during 1950s. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/142072

In 1962, the 54 year old Gibbs Corporation, located at the foot of Kings Avenue and Miami Road (eventaully renamed Prudential Drive), was sold to Jacksonville industrialist Bill Lovett. A few years later, in 1967, George Williams Gibbs passed at the age of 82 and was buried in St. Augustine's Evergreen Cemetery.

Called the "South's least known multimillionaire" by the Times-Union, in 1939, Lovett had sold his controlling interest in the Winn-Lovett Grocery Company to an entity that eventually became Winn-Dixie. He was also the president and chairman of the board of the Piggly Wiggly Corporation.

Lovett simultaneousy purchased Gibbs, Rawls Brothers Shipyards (formerly Merrill-Stevens), and Bellinger Shipyards, in Jacksonville Beach, renaming them all Jacksonville Shipyards, Inc.  At the time of Lovett's acquisition, Gibbs was considered the largest ship builder in the South.

Mr. Lovett hailed from the small Florida town of Monticello, near Tallahassee.  For many years, the publicity-shy financier lived in a handsome home overlooking the St. Johns River.  The dwelling still stands on Challen Avenue in the historic Jax neighborhood of Avondale.  Until late in life, Mr. Lovett drove himself to work in one of two 1966 Cadillacs, arriving at about 10:00 A.M. at a spartan downtown office on East Adams Street.  He toiled steadily, breaking only for a meal of peanut butter crackers and buttermilk.  The magnate would leave each evening at 6:00, taking home more work.  One family member described him as being quite devoted to his enterprises.
http://www.jaxhistory.com/Jacksonville Story/Picture of Supermarket, Lovett's and Stewarts.htm

Aerial view of Gibbs Corporation shipyard during the 1950s, looking towards the north. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/142071

In 1969, Lovett sold the Jacksonville Shipyards, Inc. to Fruehauf Corporation. Based out of Detroit, the company was founded by blacksmith and carriage builder named August Charles Fruehuaf. In 1914, Fruehauf invented the "semi-trailer", leading to the establishment of the Fruehauf Trailer Company in 1918.

Called the South Yard, under Fruehauf's ownership, it was their largest shipbuilding facilitiy featuring a 20,000-ton capacity floating dry dock, machine shops, main office building, new construction yards with two ship ways and eight mobile gantry cranes. Combined with the North Yard (Jacksonville Shipyards), St. Johns Yard and Mayport, Fruehauf employed 3,000 in 1971.

However, the days of shipbuilding on the Southbank were coming to an end. By the mid-1970s, Fruehauf shut down the Southbank's old Gibbs yard and focused on expanding and upgrading their shipyard on the Northbank.

When Mayor Hans Tanzler resigned to run for governor of Florida in 1978, city council president Jake Godbold was appointed to take his place for the last six months of the term. Elected in 1979 and again in 1983, Godbold's administration labeled the 1980s as "The Billion Dollar Decade" for downtown redevelopment. The old Gibbs shipyard became a major focus of those redevelopment efforts.

By 1982, the shipyards had been replaced with a riverfront mixed-use development featuring a 322-room Sheraton Hotel and waterfront retail/office complex anchored by Chart House and Crawdaddy's Restuarant.

A photograph of Crawdaddy's Restaurant by Deborah Thomas on August 24, 1984. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/112827

The Site Today

From World War I through the 1960s, the Gibbs shipyard produced nearly 250 vessels. Almost four decades after its closure, the redevelopment projects ushered in by the Godbold era are in need of revitalization themselves. Wyndham Hotel (originally Sheraton) and Chart House are still in operation but the buildings that once held retail shops are vacant and Crawdaddy's 1930s themed fish camp style building has been demolished. Despite the dominate maritime history, there aren't many visual reminders of George Williams Gibbs' era. However, the legacy of George Williams Gibbs lives on at a site near Mayport. Shortly after the Southbank shipyard was sold to Bill Lovett, grandson George Gibbs III established Atlantic Marine on Heckscher Drive in 1964. Now Jacksonville's largest shipyard operator, Atlantic Marine was acquired by BAE Systems in 2010 for $325 million.

Article by Ennis Davis

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2013-mar-lost-jacksonville-gibbs-corporation-shipyards

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