From the Spanish-American War in 1898 to Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s, Fort Sheridan served a vital military role. Learn more »
Established in 1887, the Fort was developed during an era of national policy change that marked the end of temporary frontier posts in favor of permanent garrisons. This coincided with national economic volatility and labor unrest.
In July 1877, Chicago workers joined the nationwide Great Railroad Strike. Confrontations and labor strikes repeatedly troubled the city. Police and militia were brought in to disperse the crowds of workers, resulting in violent clashes, the deaths of some 30 workers, and dozens of workers and police injured. This was one of several instances when federal troops were called, ultimately motivating the Commercial Club of Chicago to petition for a permanent military garrison near the city to protect their interests.
By the time of the Haymarket Riot of 1886, the Commercial Club, made up of prominent Chicago businessmen, had pressed the U.S. Secretary of War to establish a military post to help maintain order. Among the Club’s membership were industrialist George M. Pullman (1831–1897), businessman Marshall Field (1834– 1906), U.S. Senator Charles B. Farwell (1823–1903), and General Philip H. Sheridan (1831–1888), the Civil War cavalry general and the commanding General of the Army from 1883 to 1888.
A 632-acre site 25 miles north of Chicago in Highwood was selected and named Camp at Highwood. The location along the shore of Lake Michigan had access to railroads and lake shipping, and landforms of “value to infantry and cavalry training.” The Club facilitated the purchase and then donated the land to the federal government.
Fort Sheridan's role evolved over the next century, from peacekeeper during the Pullman Strikes of June 1894 to training center for wars being fought around the globe. Its troops fought on horseback in the Spanish-American War, received artillery instruction during World Wars I and II, were deployed to Vietnam, and maintained NIKE missile systems throughout the Cold War.
Building the Fort
The first infantry companies arrived in November 1887 under the command of Major William J. Lyster (1869–1947). In February 1888, the post was renamed Fort Sheridan to honor General Sheridan’s service to Chicago, and his role in restoring order after the Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871. Sheridan was the first living general to have a post named in his honor.
In 1889, Congress appropriated $300,000 for permanent buildings. Approximately 80 troops stationed there had been living in tents for two years and had struggled to stay warm through the frigid northeastern Illinois winters.
Fort Sheridan's buildings represent a significant period of architectural history. Prestigious Chicago architects Holabird and Roche were awarded the commission to design the buildings. The firm’s ability to combine classical beauty and practicality resulted in one of the finest examples of architecture in a permanent military installation. They would be one of the few architectural firms to receive such a commission, since in 1896, Congress prohibited the use of private firms to design military installations. They implemented the Richardsonian Romanesque style in the design of the water tower and the original 66 buildings at the Fort. Massive brick construction and an abundance of arches and towers reflect this style.
An integral component in the Fort’s plan was its landscape design. William Holabird (1854–1923) and Martin Roche (1853–1927) hired their former colleague, landscape architect, Ossian C. Simonds (1855–1931). Simonds designed the landscape, drainage and sewage systems, parade grounds, winding roads, and the parkland. His appreciation of the ravines and native plants enhanced the beauty and cohesion of the site. Simonds chose the land between the site’s two ravines for the military parade grounds and to create an open space reminiscent of prairies.
While Simonds preferred that much of the natural areas be preserved, the bluffs held deposits of sand, gravel and clay useful in the Fort’s construction. The harvested clay was used to make 6 million bricks for the buildings constructed between 1889 and 1910, including the 66 buildings designed by Holabird and Roche. The cream-colored bricks with their subtle greenish hue were molded and fired in the old brickworks of the former Village of St. John’s (1844–1865). The bluffs were stripped of clay, leaving them vulnerable to erosion from the removal of vegetation.
The most prominent of the Holabird and Roche strutures was the water tower, built in 1891. It remains a notable landmark today. The tower served an essential purpose as an elevated water storage tank, and it dominated the region’s landscape. At 227 feet tall, it was taller than any structure in Chicago at that time. It became the symbol of Fort Sheridan’s military might. In 1940, the top of the tower was modified and the tower’s overall height reduced to 169 feet.
Ninety-four buildings at the Fort are designated National Historic Landmarks.
Training and Trenches
The entire site, including the plateau, bluffs and ravines were used for infantry and cavalry training. Cavalrymen were undaunted by the uneven terrain of the ravines and bluffs, and reveled in showcasing their horsemanship as they rode their mounts down the bluffs to the lakeshore or performed trick riding at public horse shows.
During World War I, an extensive trench system constructed on the southeast portion of the post served to simulate the trench warfare at the European front for infantry training. Beginning in 1924 with the arrival of the nation’s first anti-aircraft regiment, practice rounds were fired over Lake Michigan. Army engineers also found the site’s landscape useful for training as they built temporary bridges with tree trunks harvested from the ravines.
End of an Era
Measures to secure the Fort for public benefit began in the late 1980s. For nearly a decade, the Lake County Forest Preserves worked with surrounding communities to win congressional and presidential approval of legislation to have the U.S. Army transfer land to us for public open space, recreation and preservation.
After Fort Sheridan was officially closed on May 28, 1993, by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, many wondered what would become of the site and the surrounding communities whose history, culture and economy had been so closely tied. The U.S. Department of Defense conveyed 250 acres of land to the Lake County Forest Preserves in 1994 as part of the Base Closure Act. In 1997, the Army began conveyance of the northern section of the former base. The third and final parcel was received in 2001.
The U.S Department of Defense retained 90 acres of the base for the Fort Sheridan Army Reserve Center and sold a portion of the remaining land for private development. Several of the Fort's buildings and officers homes were renovated and sold by the Town of Fort Sheridan for private residences.
Dunn Museum Collections
To ensure that Fort Sheridan’s history and the role it played locally and on the national stage was preserved and interpreted, the Bess Bower Dunn Museum in Libertyville (formerly named Lake County Discovery Museum) partnered with the Fort Sheridan Museum, operated by the U.S. Center for Military History in Washington, D.C.
Dozens of artifacts and nearly 3,000 photographs and postcards were transferred to the Dunn Museum for permanent care. By keeping these materials in Lake County, we can maintain that link between the past and the present, and provide greater access to the stories of people and events that shaped the world around us. Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the collection was digitized and is accessible to the public online through the Illinois Digital Archives.