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Claiming the high ground

A patch of rare terrain, part of a former military base, opens to the public

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A year after a public demonstration in favor of an eight-hour workday devolved into the infamous Haymarket "riot," the Commercial Club of Chicago—then as now, a fraternity of the oligarchy—bought a big plot of lakefront land 25 miles north of the city and donated it to the federal government with the understanding that it would be turned into a military base. By late 1887 Fort Sheridan was up and running, its contingent of federal troops ready to ride into the city should the working classes, with their dangerously radical ideas, get out of hand.

Designed by Holabird & Roche, the fort was anchored by a 228-foot tower, and eventually consisted of 94 buildings, most constructed of bricks made from clay found on the site. Over the next century it served a variety of military purposes, from holding tank for Lakotas captured at Wounded Knee to training ground for the likes of General George Patton to service center for the rings of NIKE missiles that studded the midwest during the cold war. But in 1993 the base was closed, and its 714 acres were divided into four major pieces.

The army kept 114 acres for a reserve base. Another 125 acres were sold to private developers who turned the garrison's stables, barracks, and stately officers' houses into the sanitized Town of Fort Sheridan, an upscale residential community with National Historic Landmark status. Thanks in part to lobbying by Openlands, a small nonprofit working to conserve open space in northeastern Illinois, the Lake County Forest Preserve District got 259 acres, now the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve. And the U.S. Navy bought the southernmost 185 acres, mostly for use as military housing. That parcel included 77 acres of wilderness in need of restoration that the navy eventually decided it didn't want.

Formed as the last of the glaciers slid out of the area about 10,000 years ago, it's a patch of the Prairie State's rarest terrain—a landscape of towering bluffs, steep wooded ravines, and secluded beach found only on the narrow stretch of lakefront that runs roughly between Winnetka and Waukegan. In a century and a half of development, most of this extraordinary landscape disappeared into the backyards of North Shore homes; precious little had been preserved for public access.

Since its founding in 1963, Openlands had functioned as advocate, aide, and adviser to entities like forest preserve districts, without ever seeking to own the property it wanted to protect. But this time, afraid that this last piece of the Highland Park moraine would also fall into private ownership, and with the help of then-congressman Mark Kirk (who as a Fort Sheridan resident had more than a passing interest), Openlands asked the navy to give it the land in return for a promise to preserve and keep it public forever. In a series of transfers that began in 2006 and ended in 2010, it was done.

This weekend, after five years of raising money, clearing invasive growth, correcting drainage (erosion is both the architect and the enemy of this landscape), and constructing staircases, bike paths, bridges, and overlooks, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve will open its piece of the former military stronghold to the public. Home to more than 150 plant species and, as part of the Great Lakes flyway, a destination for 150 varieties of birds, it includes three wooded ravines (one with a bike-friendly road traversing its length) and a mile-long ribbon of beach backed by 70-foot bluffs (unfortunately, no swimming allowed). Openlands has put art there too, some of it educational: a big mural, three aluminum poles, a series of medallions, and a driftwoodlike sculpture, all inspired—and trumped—by the scene around them.

There's a free shuttle from the Highwood Metra station on opening day, Saturday, September 10, from 11 AM to 2 PM. Activities include tours in English and Spanish, a scavenger hunt, and other activities for children, all free. Parking near the preserve is limited and the driving route to get there is complicated; see openlands.org for directions and other info. After opening weekend the preserve will be open daily from 6:30 AM to sunset; there's no admission fee.

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