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A Military Presence: The Phantoms of Fort Sheridan

An excerpt from "Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City," by Ursula Bielski

Illinois can claim only the scantiest handful of American tall tales, but what the region lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality, especially in the forested coastal areas surrounding north suburban Fort Sheridan. For it is this wild and rocky region that is supposed by American folklore to have been part of Paul Bunyan's logging territory, the Great Lakes themselves having been gouged out by a fall taken by Bunyan's Great Blue Ox, Babe. Even without the whoppers, however, the history of Fort Sheridan remains fully American, richly anecdotal, and often eerie.

Fort Sheridan was built along the Indian trail connecting Green Bay, Wisconsin, a French trading post and mission established around 1670, and the Native American hunting grounds and villages in and around Chicago. Tribes of mostly Illinois and Potawatomi would travel northward along the road from what is now Diversey Avenue in Chicago, hugging the lakeshore and heading up what is now Clark Street. With the 19th century came a series of treaties between the white settlers and the Native Americans. The last was negotiated in Chicago on September 26, 1833, in which the Potawatomi ceded to the U.S. all of their remaining Illinois land.

Not long after, the trail was employed increasingly by traders and settlers traveling between Green Bay and Chicago. Because of the trail's use as a passage for military-escorted pioneers traveling from Ft. Dearborn, it was also known as the Military Road. Eventually, the road became the central highway connecting Chicago and Green Bay and was officially named Green Bay Road.

By the late 1860s, Chicago had become a regrouping point for Eastern pioneers headed westward. The Division of the Missouri, quartered in Chicago and led by Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan played a large part in these pioneers' protection. Sheridan's special burden was to make sure they obeyed the law in the frontier regions (i.e., most of the land west of Chicago). From the Division's headquarters at Washington and LaSalle streets, Sheridan met the challenge and established himself and the Division as indispensable to the peace and safety of Chicago and vicinity. In the days of looting that followed the Chicago Fire of 1871, Mayor Roswell Mason responded to the chaos by declaring martial law and putting the city in Sheridan's hands.

Although Mason's decision caused an outrage in the governor's office, Sheridan carried out his commission, gaining esteem in the eyes of the city's administration and in the hearts of its citizens. A dozen years after the Great Fire, Sheridan was reassigned to the War Department, leaving in tears a Chicago that would remember when "all eyes were turned to him in those chaotic days 'when men's hearts failed them, and ruin and desolation stared us in the face.' ..."

With such a strong reputation, it was natural that Sheridan came to mind when, several years later, Chicago businessmen concerned about the violent potential of labor unrest met to discuss plans for a military installation near Chicago. With fresh memories of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 overshadowing the city, the moguls recalled the power of the military to restore order on that devastating day. Accordingly, they decided that a ready source of military force would be crucial if business were to proceed without serious future threat from workers.

On November 8, 1887, Companies F and K of the Sixth Infantry Regiment pulled into Highwood, Illinois, from Utah. Eighty soldiers were commanded by Major William J. Lyster, who set up camp near the wild shoreline set aside for the fort. With five men to each tent, the companies started out poorly, with no vegetables, undrinkable water, and the looming realization that the elite of Chicago were relying on the soldiers' readiness to take on urban unrest.

Major Lyster nonetheless persevered in his duties, and by the time he ended his command in late summer of 1890, the erection of permanent buildings had begun. Nearly 10 years later, Congress appropriated several hundred thousand dollars for permanent structures to house six companies of infantry and four troops of cavalry, as well as a wharf, water tower, cemetery, and rifle range. The construction proved tedious, if ultimately successful. Water had to be pumped from the lake and driven to the building sites by horse-drawn tankers. Construction materials had to be transported through ever-present mud. Adding to all the frustration within the fort, were still more problems outside of it.

With the establishment of the fort came the development of the village of Highwood. Originally planned in 1868, Highwood's settlers had come from Chicago after losing their homes in the Chicago Fire, hoping to establish farms on the North Shore. Less than a year after Lyster's arrival, Highwood had become inextricably tied to the military post and was renamed the village of Fort Sheridan. Although the town and the fort suffered few conflicts of interest, one was enough to test their relationship -- the question of liquor.

Worried that the town would become a "den of iniquity," and pointing fingers at the dram shops (i.e., taverns) that catered to soldiers and construction workers, residents banned the sale of liquor, though "blind pigs" remained in business peddling alcohol in defiance of the law. Finally, liquor licenses were established, at a $1,000 a pop and issued to anyone who was willing to pay the price and to promise not to sell to "lunatics, idiots, insane persons, minors, and habitual drunkards." Not surprisingly, illegal liquor sales continued, as did the arguments. Finally, in 1908, taverns were closed and stayed shuttered until state laws took over liquor sales.

Amid such squabbling, the physical fort was quietly and admirably taking form. Designed by the pioneering Chicago firm of Holabird and Roche, the fort would eventually attain status as a National Historic Landmark. After a movement that began in 1979, an Historic American Buildings Survey found 94 of the fort's buildings, beginning with the its massive 150-foot water tower worthy of designation as a National Historic District. These buildings deserve reverence, but not merely or even mainly for their artistic or military significance. As silent witnesses to the struggles of countless individuals, these structures are venerable ultimately for the stories they shelter.

Among the hundreds of thousands of anecdotes grown dusty in these landmarks, the most moth-eaten are the humdrum tales of day-to-day army life. But, even the strangest realities inevitably became typical; the most bizarre of personalities just another among hundreds of buzz-cut heads. For example, a mess sergeant assigned to the Anti-Aircraft Military Training Center (AATC) who ate razor blades, nails, tacks, buttons, and even drinking glasses before enlisting in 1941. After he swallowed a wristwatch, doctors predicted an imminent demise. Instead, the sergeant went on to a great career with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Although most of Fort Sheridan's more colorful characters have since passed away, a few still linger. Curiously, the most famous do not seem to be military. Instead, the fort's two most active spirits are working class unenlisted going about their respective business. Best known is a so-called "Woman in Orange," seen during random sunrises at Building 31, the Community Club Building. Building 31 previously housed the Officer's mess hall and the El Morocco Lounge, an officer's club which once hosted George S. Patton. The Woman in Orange, so dubbed for the stunning orange dress she wears, seems perpetually concerned with the perfection of her catering skills. She, by the way, is rumored to resemble Mamie Eisenhower.

Meanwhile, at Building 1, the old fort hospital, a custodian eternally tends to his duties, stoking the furnace and tapping the pipes. Across the road out back, the hospital morgue, nicknamed the "Dead House," still stands, although its ivy-covered walls and skylights have disappeared. The tiny, solid structure, bearing blind windows and crosses in relief housed a neat interior with sink, sewer, and a room for autopsies. It is interesting that the Dead House was designed by Holabird and Roche, while the fort hospital itself was built from standard plans.

Other strays at the nearly deserted fort include a nineteenth-century chaplain named Charles Adams; a drill sergeant who scares the dickens out of witnesses by hollering orders to his long-dead enlisted; the galloping shade of a horse on Patten Road; and the festive strains of accordion music from the site of a former German POW camp.

Today, a drive through the roads of Fort Sheridan, set grandly on the edge of awesome Lake Michigan, is a bittersweet trip. The abandonment of such an opulent array of architectural gems remains a puzzling reality even in the face of all the facts, figures, and logic that explain the fort's closing. Explorers should not be deterred from seeking out its secrets. For while this richly historical setting has been emptied of most human life, a warm welcome awaits from at least some personalities who remain eternally present and accounted for.

© Reprinted from "Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City" (Revised Edition), by Ursula Bielski, courtesy of Lake Claremont Press.

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