Fort Sheridan was officially established an Army base in the late 1880’s, but it’s history began long before then, first around 1670 as a French trading post centrally located on an old trail between Green Bay, Wisconsin and the area that was early Chicago. Due to the deep ravines, heavily forested area and shoreline rather than river side location, it simply wasn’t suitable for farming back then. By the 1840’s, a small community named St. Johns was situated on the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan providing logging, leather tanning, brick making and iron casting operations. A long pier was built for use in shipping lumber that was harvested from the area. These endeavors were short lived, and St. Johns became largely abandoned by 1865 as the bluffs were stripped bare from extensive lumbering operations and production of 400,000 bricks annually from the area’s clay deposits.
At the same time, Chicago had grown into a major commercial center and as a gateway to the west, with about 300,000 in population. The development of Fort Sheridan as a formal military base of operations followed shortly afterwards – it’s establishment as a permanent military post was intended to be to protect nearby Chicago’s commercial interests for keeping the peace and dealing with unruly labor disputes and disruptions. Union Civil War General Philip H. Sheridan was appointed as the commander of a U.S. Army division occupied and operated from the site. From this first commander comes the fort’s name.
Following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, General Sheridan had lead the Army in providing extensive relief efforts for the homeless and needy, and in restoring order after massive looting and other unlawful activities. In the latter 1870’s and into the 1880’s and 1890’s, labor unrest in Chicago required military intervention to quell the uprisings. Chicago entrepreneur Marshall Field, along with other area businessmen, petitioned the Secretary of War to establish a military installation in 1886 leading to the 632 acre site know for the next hundred years as Fort Sheridan.
The Fort’s architecture was marked by arched entrances, arcaded openings, simple brickwork and elegant but Spartan, stone and terra cotta ornamentation. The center of the post was the 54 acre, irregularly shaped oval parade ground around which was positioned a 228 foot tower flanked by 1,000 feet of barracks on the south side, and the Bachelor Officers Quarters and single family homes varying in size on the east and north sides. Fort Sheridan’s original design called for 64 stylish brickwork buildings made from cream colored bricks actually extracted from the reopened clay pits. An estimated six million were used.
The single family homes facing the parade ground served as quarters for officers, the size of the home dependant upon an officer’s military rank. The Post Commanders’ residences were located on the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan and were designed in the Queen Anne style each with a corner tower, a front facing gabled dormer and a front porch trimmed in Romanesque Revival terra cotta ornamentation. The picturesque style of these large and imposing Post Commander residences set them apart from the brick gabled front homes for families of Captains and Lieutenants that faced directly onto the Parade Grounds. The non-commissioned officers’ structures were more specifically Romanesque in style with gabled dormers and front porches.
The imposing tower was originally designed with a more pitched roof than present today, and provided a dramatic opening at the base large enough to accommodate a platoon of soldiers marching to the adjoining parade ground. Connected structurally to barracks buildings on the east and west sides, the tower structure formed the commanding centerpiece to the historically significant complex. The tower was reduced to its current 168 foot height in 1949 to address structural problems.
Whereas the first real military activity began when a group of the defeated Lakota tribe were impounded after the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, most of the activity and purpose for Fort Sheridan centered around labor unrest to maintain public order and safety, which fulfilled one of the Fort’s original charter missions.
From the Spanish American War until its reduction in scope to just two reserve complexes in 1993, Fort Sheridan served as a center for troops headed for or returning from battle zones. During these times, Fort Sheridan also development in many other roles; before World War One, thousand of Army Officers received their commissions from nation’s first Reserve Officers Training Center. During WW I, Fort Sheridan became an induction center and Midwest training center for men entering the army from Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Temporary wooden facilities were constructed to accommodate these expanded needs, with all be a very few now gone.
Following the war, the great influenza epidemic of 1918 saw an additional temporary expansion need as 60,000 patients were treated at the Fort. By 1920, the epidemic’s ravages had passed and Fort life returned once again to military pursuits.
As time moved on the Fort required changes to accommodate use of automobiles, tanks and trucks and the passing of cavalry importance. Hence, the structures previously devoted to blacksmiths, stables, wheelwrights, wagon masters and cavalry needs gave way to automotive mechanics, motor pools, machinery and related activity. Always known before as a cavalry post, it became the base home between the wars of the then-contemporary Armored Cavalry innovator George S. Patton, the famous World War Two general.
When World War II became a reality with its peacetime draft, Fort Sheridan again became one of four Recruit Reception Centers in the country, processing large numbers of recruits. During the War the Fort was the administrative control headquarters for prisoner of war camps in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. A total of 15,000 prisoners fell under that responsibility, including many who were actually incarcerated at the Fort.
During both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts Fort Sheridan again served as a reception and processing center for military personnel . The post was also the logistical support for 33 Nike-Hercules missile sites throughout the country. By 1975, the post had the largest military and civilian contingent in its history. Nevertheless, in the 1980’s, the personnel dwindled to 1,400 military personnel, down from a peak of 5,000. By the 1980’s, no regular combat troops were stationed at the Fort and its main functions had evolved into supervision of reserve activities around the Midwest.
Although the post was among the first to be closed during the initial round of military base closures in 1990, training and administrative activities continued until the end. Significantly, Fort Sheridan did serve to actively support the Desert Shield and Desert Storm programs by mobilizing active, reserve and National Guard units for these conflicts.
The Fort as an Active Duty Military Installation was officially closed on May 28, 1993, but the North Shore Reserve Center and the Sheridan Joint Reserve Training Complex still serve as the home for more than 30 units from Army Reserve and National Guard, the Navy and the Marine Corps. Standing in most of the old fort’s grounds now is the civilian Town of Fort Sheridan, shared by the three bordering cities – Highwood, Highland Park and Lake Forest – with buildings which have been painstakingly and lovingly restored to their original historic beauty.