A French trading post was established circa 1670 on a trail between Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the early Chicago area. The trail and trading post was used by Native Americans and settlers alike. The settlers were mostly Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants. The area was never considered suitable for farming due to the many ravines and heavy forestation.
In the 1840s a small community, St. Johns, was established. It was settled on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The villagers were active in logging, leather tanning, brick making, and iron casting. The area eventually became ravaged by rampant deforestation associated with the production of 400,000 bricks annually. The village grew idle and became deserted by 1865. In the 1870s and 1880s, the City of Chicago suffered from labor unrest that ultimately led to the establishment of Fort Sheridan. The turmoil that continuously flared up between labor and management climaxed in the infamous Haymarket Riots of May 1886. Troops from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, were summoned to quell the uprising, but further riots, such as those at the McCormick Reaper Works, continued throughout the year, resulting in uneasiness among Chicago’s prominent industrialists.
The effectiveness of U.S. troops in controlling matters after the 1871 fire and the mob action following labor-management disputes left an impression on Chicago business leaders. Prominent businessmen and politicians, including George Pullman, Marshall Field, and Senator C. B. Farwell, pressed for the establishment of a permanent military presence in Chicago.
The War Department accepted the proposal to build a military installation and by July a team of officers, which included General Sheridan, had selected a location known as the Highwood Tract for recommendation to the Secretary of War. This 632-acre site was secured by the Commercial Club, donated to the government, and accepted by joint Congressional resolution, dated March 3, 1887. A Commercial Club consortium of Adolphus C. Bartlett, Charles L. Hutchinson, and John J. Janes and their wives acted as intermediaries and served as grantors named in the deed. Subsequently, three ravines were named after these three members of the club. The post was called the "Camp at Highwood."
The first regiment arrived on November 8, 1887, which is recognized as the date the post was established. Eighty-four men commanded by Major William Lyster came from Fort Douglas, Utah. Timing was such that Lyster’s troops arrived at Fort Sheridan three days before the execution of the accused Haymarket Riot anarchists. In addition to Lyster’s men, 1,200 members of the Illinois National Guard were on placed on alert. The Haymarket crisis, however, passed without Lyster’s having to lead his men into Chicago.
On February 27, 1888, the Camp at Highwood was officially named Fort Sheridan after the general who had played such a significant role in the founding of the Fort. General Sheridan visited the post on May 5, 1888, and received his last review of troops. He died August 5, 1888.
In 1984 parts of Fort Sheridan were designated a National Historic Landmark District by the National Park Service. The National Park Service states that the site "possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America." The historic district includes 230 acres (93 ha) of land and buildings bounded by Hutchinson and Bartlett Ravines and the shore of Lake Michigan. There are 94 buildings in the district. The buildings include officers' quarters, barracks, stables, a drill hall, water tower, and many other institutional buildings. The 54-acre (22 ha) parade ground was preserved as open space.
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