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TODAY

Sunday, July 21

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Airbags

"Excuse me, can you help me?"

I heard this question as I sat, hunched over a book, on an overcast afternoon at a Brown Line platform on the Northwest Side. But a single woman, alone on an El platform, enjoys few things less than solicitations or unwanted advances from strangers. I steeled myself for a confrontation as I lifted my eyes from my book, the automatic "sorry" already halfway to my lips. But the word died on my tongue when I saw the young man standing in front of me.

"I'm trying to get back to Great Lakes."

Of course. I absorbed the distinctive cap resting slightly askew on his shaved head, the wool peacoat, the crisply pressed trousers, black dress shoes and his perfect posture, and I quickly deduced that by "Great Lakes," this young man wasn't looking for Oak Street Beach. This was a Navy man, a lost sailor trying to find his way back to his base — the Great Lakes Naval Training Center.

94 Years of History

Naval Station Great Lakes, as it is formally known, occupies some coveted lakefront property on the North Shore in the far northern suburb of North Chicago, about 35 miles north of Chicago. And, although it is 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, Great Lakes Naval Training Center is the Navy's largest training center, not to mention the biggest military installation in the state.

Theodore Roosevelt authorized the construction of the station in 1904, but the decision to build it along the shore of Lake Michigan did not come without debate. An Illinois congressman named George E. Foss, however, argued for the location, pointing out that more than half of the sailors who fought in the Spanish-American War had come from the Midwest. Local businessmen also supported the idea with enthusiastic fundraising and boosterism. Finally, the land on which the station eventually was built was donated by the Merchants Club of Chicago.

The station opened its doors to its first recruits in 1911, but it first rose to prominence during World War I. Between January and April, 1917, the number of recruits at Great Lakes soared from 1,500 to more than 9,000. The station rapidly expanded.

After the World War I, however, the station was continually downsized until it was closed completely between 1933 and 1935. But World War II marked a new beginning for Great Lakes. The station expanded again, and historians estimate more than 800,000 men were trained at Great Lakes during the war.

Today Naval Station Great Lakes continues to play a vital role in the U.S. Navy, but it still fights off criticism for its unusual freshwater location. The station has survived the chopping block several times in recent years, although earlier this year Great Lakes was scheduled to lose almost 2,000 military jobs as part of sweeping military cost-cutting measures.

Yet Great Lakes still rivals pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories as one of the largest employers in Lake County. The station is a city within a city, with a population of more than 25,000. It consists of over 1,100 buildings on more than 1,600 acres, and it has 50 miles of roads connecting the pieces together.

Great Lakes has its own hospital, chapels, shopping and restaurants. It also has its own library and first-run movie theater. The station even has its own weekly newspaper, the Great Lakes Bulletin, and a cable access television station.

A Lesson Learned

Sure, I know all this now. But that afternoon on the El platform all I could do was wave my hand vaguely north and stammer my apologies. Now I know I should have told him he needed to take the Metra Union Pacific North Line from the Ogilvie Transportation Center at Madison and Canal, which would take him straight to the Great Lakes train station.

And now, should you meet any lost sailors wandering around Chicago, you know, too.

Additional Resources

Naval Station Great Lakes
Visit the official website for Great Lakes. It includes everything you could possibly want to know about the station, the training center and life in the Navy.

NSGL Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department
Think of this as the softer side of Great Lakes. The website of the Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department covers the sports, events, leisure activities and many other services available to the Great Lakes community.

Great Lakes Naval Museum
The Great Lakes Naval Museum is located within the Naval Training Center in North Chicago. It is devoted to naval history in general, and the history of Great Lakes in particular. The website includes some digitized items from its collection, including dozens of photos. Admission to the museum is free, and it is open to the public. Visitors are reminded, however, to bring "bring a photo ID and, if driving, a driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance" in order to gain entrance to Great Lakes.

~*~

Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading I'm Not the New Me by Wendy McClure. We will be meeting to discuss the book with the author, Wendy McClure, on Monday, November 14, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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