Naval Station Great Lakes

Following the Spanish-American War, the United States recognized the need for formal training, rather than “on-the-job training” to increase naval readiness as a response to growing tensions in Europe. The response came in the form of various recruit training facilities across the country. At this time, the Department of the Navy acknowledged that many of their top performers came out of the American heartland, prompting an “absurd” chain of thought for a freshwater training center, nestled over a thousand miles from any ocean.

Naval Station Great Lakes was signed into law following approval and encouragement from President Roosevelt in 1905 (CNIC). The land it was to inhabit was graciously donated by the Merchants Club of Chicago. It was a product of the expansive nationalism of the era following the Spanish-American War, as well as aggressive self-promotion by Chicago businessmen and Illinois politicians. Ideally located at the nation's rail hub and near its population center, the camp gained great significance during World War I.

Photo courtesy of CNIC, Naval Station Great Lakes, History dept. (

The “quarter deck of the navy” was conceived by Captain Albert Ross, a distinguished officer with a talent for training sailors; Lt. George McKay, a civil engineer having earned his commission from Rensselaer Polytechnic institute; and Jarvis Hunt, an architect with degrees from Harvard and MIT. Together, they turned the North Chicago wilderness into what would become the largest (Naval) training facility in the United States and eventually the only recruit training depot for the entirety of the Navy. The trio designed and oversaw the construction of the original 39 buildings, with the help of Chicago’s labor force. The project took a $3.5 million dollar chunk out of the Department of Defense’s budget and plunged it right into the local economy.

Officially opening its gates in 1911, the first graduating class boasting a mere 300 sailors; but by the time war was declared in 1917, more than 9,000 men swarmed the base to join the navy, contributing to nearly 200,000 sailors throughout the war (CNIC). In January 1917, 618 recruits arrived at Great Lakes; in February 922 came here; by April, when war was declared, more than 9,000. By the time peace was declared, 45,000 Sailors were in training, and Great Lakes had 776 buildings, with 1,200 acres at its disposal. All these Sailors came to a place designed for merely 1,500. They greatly contributed to the Navy's success in the war. They brought nearly a million American soldiers to fight on the Western Front. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson was beginning a new term in office, when he asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers. Suddenly, America needed millions of warriors on land and on sea. At Great Lakes tent cities sprouted up, while Sailors with skills in construction helped civilian workers build housing and training facilities for our Navy. We called those Sailors "The 12th regiment," and "The Fighting Tradesmen." A generation later, their descendants became the Seabees.

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John Phillip Sousa came to Great Lakes to volunteer his services to the Navy, following long service as leader of the United States Marine Corps Band, and later as the leader of his own band. Sousa took Capt. Moffett's challenge when America entered the Great War, and became Bandmaster of Great Lakes. Sousa led 1,500 musicians who were assigned to "Regimental Bands," smaller groups, and the elite "Band Battalion”.

At the end of the war, almost as quickly as we had prepared for battle, America went back to the pursuits of peace. We kept a Navy, but it was smaller. Great Lakes became smaller, too. In 1923, only aviation activities expanded with the commissioning of the Naval Reserve Air Base, Great Lakes. Through the 1920's and early 1930's, Great Lakes added the air base, and the Radio School. Recruit training slowed to a crawl, and was even halted for a time. Illinois citizens and politicians made their concern known in Washington and recruit training resumed. Although scaled down after victory in 1945, Great Lakes remained an important naval facility and expanded again during the Korean War.

Recruits from Naval Station Great Lakes forming the word "Victory" at the end of World War I.

Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Fast forward to 2018, the Naval Station contributes over $4 billion to the local economies of Wisconsin and Illinois, namely the Chicagoland area, and provides the Navy with 50,000 sailors annually, a stark difference to the mere 300 of that first graduating class in 1911. Since it's founding in the late 19th century, the base was meant to support the Navy in retention and bolstering its ranks with well trained sailors, it did so with a long and well written track record. It was the clearest choice to sustain the Navy's training objectives when budget cuts rolled around to shut down the recruit depots on the coasts. Despite its humble beginnings, the base developed quickly into a hearty installation integral to the function of the Department of Defense. Great Lakes played key roles in every war since its construction, arguably playing one of the largest roles for American victory in its nautical theaters.

Created by Bailey Placek

End Notes

Duis, Perry, and Scott LaFrance. We've Got a Job to Do: Chicagoans and World War II. 1992.

Ebner, Michael. Creating Chicago's North Shore: A Suburban History. 1988.

Price, Stephen. “Navy Honors Golden Dream Of 13 Pioneers.” Chicago Tribune, 10 Mar. 1994. (quote)

National Park Service (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.

Webb, Brandon; David Mann, John (2012). The Red Circle. Macmillan. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-250-01840-3. ... Naval Station Great Lakes (or unofficially, Great Mistakes)

Slaton, Deborah J. (18 July 1985). "Great Lakes Naval Training Station – NRHP Nomination form" (PDF). Historic Architectural Resources Geographic Information System.

Associated Press (20 March 1993). "Facing shrinking resources, Navy sacrifices Orlando Base". The News-Journal. Daytona Beach, Florida.

"1993 DoD BRAC Recommendations" (PDF). US Department of Defense. March 1993. p. 241.

"Gov. Blagojevich vows to fight for Great Lakes Naval Training Center and do everything possible to save any jobs in jeopardy". 13 May 2005.

Rittenberg, Adam (26 May 2010). "Northwestern looks to practice at Navy base"