Why Chicago businessmen sponsored Fort Sheridan

By Caryl Clem

Chicago was becoming an industrial giant; trend sitting businesses thrived beside brick and mortar institutions. The rich were moving to the northern suburbs building towns with paved streets, gas lights, electricity, sewage disposal, water lines, recreational parks and cultural attractions. In 1856 Lake Forest was founded with Glencoe, Highland Park, and Lake Bluff established by the end of the 1860’s.  

Chicago housing was dominated by the working class. Small houses with dirt floors were springing up by the factories.  Older neighborhoods were dominated by waves of immigrants looking for work.  In 1884 early labor unions started demanding an eight hour work day. By 1886, the infamous Haymarket Riot that started May 3 and ended on May 4 with a documented 80,000 workers marching down Michigan Avenue attacked by police. The labor issues were bigger than the police units could adequately address. Time to boost police with military support.

A track of 600 acres along Lake Michigan was owned by the Chicago Commercial Club in preparation for a defense location. Teaming with the federal government to protect Chicago, the land was given to build a military post arguing danger from Indian tribes along this Green Bay trail could threaten further expansion. On November 8, 1887 two Infantry units from Utah under the command of Major Williams John Lyster arrived on a train in Highwood to build a base.

Fort Sheridan was described in the New York Herald as “A Bit of Eden” a section of land edging over Lake Michigan with almost 80 feet high bluffs with six ravines located on this plateau graced by running mineral spring water. One side of the plateau provided space for practicing military maneuvers. Several groves of trees outlined where housing for the officers would be built. For these men from Utah, the sight had to be breath taking.

The base was designed to preserve the integrity of the natural habitat.  Designer Ossian Simonds planned to keep the trees and vegetation species, building the parade area between Hutchison and Bartlett ravines where heavy rains would not impede the functions of that particular location.  The cemetery, parade grounds and three Loops maintained natural beauty will provide room for military training. Simonds technique of blurring boundary lines with broadly curved pathways lined by random groups of trees and shrubs is evident.  Traveling down these paths offers an ever changing view. Simonds was the Superintendent at Graceland Cemetery carrying his design methods to Fort Sheridan’s Cemetery by the Jane Ravine.

Today Fort Sheridan is part of the Forest Preserve while remaining structures are under separate supervision. Whenever federal surplus property is available, the 1988 Stewart McKinney Homeless Assistance Act mandates that homeless agencies are given priority. The Chicago Vietnam Veterans and Family Assistance Program were given the VIP Hotel, Building 32 and The Catholic Charities of Chicago Archdiocese were awarded twenty structures.

Fort Sheridan land was donated to protect Chicago’s residents.  This dream has kept intact the legacy of the prairie grassland habitant and provides support for those in need.

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