Feature: Naval Station Great Lakes – Making Sailors for 100 Years
Until the late 1800s, molding U.S. Navy recruits into enlisted Sailors was strictly an on-the-job affair. Recruits signed up and went directly to a ship, where they learned the ropes – quite literally – aboard the sea-going vessels on which they would serve. In 1881, the Navy opened its Training Station at Newport, Rhode Island, and began preparing bluejackets in the fundamentals of seamanship and more specialized duties they may be asked to perform.
“Shortly after the Spanish-American War, Navy leaders made a startling discovery: Many of their best Sailors came from the Midwest,” explains John Sheppard, public affairs officer for Naval Station Great Lakes (NSGL). “So the Navy started looking into the idea of training Sailors in that part of the country. A board of officers recommended the training facility be located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan – essentially where it is today.”
Prevailing 1902 politics and economics almost derailed the proposal. Every Midwestern state was lobbying to have the training facility built within its borders and the $1,000-per-acre price for waterfront property on Lake Michigan was a significant stumbling block. The plan stalled for two years, until Illinois Congressman George E. Foss enlisted the help of local businessmen to raise the money needed to purchase the pricey “Lake Bluff” site. When the site selection board convened in 1905, Foss proudly announced that a group of patriotic Chicagoans stood ready to buy the land and convey it to the United States Navy for the cost of one dollar. Congress readily approved the purchase and the concept of Naval Training Station Great Lakes, more commonly referred to simply as “Great Lakes,” was born.
The Secretary of the Navy selected Captain Albert Ross, one of the service’s most accomplished trainers, to become the first commandant of Great Lakes. Navy Civil Engineer George McKay and Jarvis Hunt, a renowned architect, were tasked with designing and constructing the new facility that would occupy 172 acres approximately halfway between Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The round arches and vaults of the red brick structures reflected an updated Romanesque style, included nautical detail such as the bow of a sailing ship above the main entrances and in the brass door handles.
Construction methods of the day included some steam-driven equipment, but the bulk of the backbreaking labor was done by horses and human hands. It took six years, approximately $3.5 million dollars and countless man-hours to complete the original 39 buildings that included a main training camp, receiving camp, hospital and Marine barracks and guard house.
The facility opened on July 1, 1911, and two days later Joseph W. Gregg of Terre Haute, Indiana, became station’s first recruit. For the next several years, training proceeded at a slow and steady pace, transforming about 2,000 citizens into Navy Sailors each year.