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History of Lake Forest

Following the Treaty of Chicago in 1833 and the removal of the Potawatomi Indians, the U.S. government opened land north of Chicago along the shore of Lake Michigan for settlement. Throughout the next two decades, four developments in technology and transportation facilitated the area’s growth: the Green Bay Military Road, the Illinois & Michigan Canal, the first telegraph line between Chicago and Milwaukee (along Telegraph Road) and the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad.

By the 1840s and 1850s, a number of homesteads had cropped up in the grasslands along the Skokie River, in what years later became west Lake Forest. Many of these pioneers were Irish immigrants, who founded St. Patrick Catholic Church and Cemetery. This farming community, known by the 1880s as Everett, shared an adjacent and overlapping history with Lake Forest until it was annexed in 1926.

Lake Forest was established east of these early settlements, along the shore, about 30 miles north of Chicago. The beauty of its natural setting (lake, forest, ravine and bluff) as well as its accessibility by railroad to Chicago, were the most significant factors in the location’s selection for development. A group of Chicago Presbyterians who wished to found an institution of higher learning were drawn to the site. In 1856 they created the Lake Forest Association to purchase the land, sponsor a university and preparatory schools for young men and women, and plan the new community. They hired landscape architect Almerin Hotchkiss to plat the town, and his curvilinear, park-like town plan, embracing the place’s ravines and unique terrain, formed the basis of Lake Forest’s unique character.

Education was central to the Lake Forest undertaking from the beginning. Incorporated in 1861, the city adopted as its motto “Naturae et Scientiae Amor” (“Love of Nature and Science”). Classes began at Lake Forest Academy in 1857 even before the Academy building was complete; at first the young men met in the Lake Forest Hotel. Dickinson’s Seminary for Young Ladies gave way by 1869 to Ferry Hall, a female preparatory school. Lake Forest University (now Lake Forest College), the linchpin of the Lake Forest Association’s original vision, got off the ground in 1876 after a few bumps and starts (the financial panic of 1857 drained it of funds; the Civil War drained it of students).

In the wake of the increasing population, pollution, and social unrest in Chicago during the latter decades of the 19th century, the suburban retreat of Lake Forest proved attractive to the city’s elite. Interest rose in leisure activities that required an abundance of open space, such as golf, polo, tennis, equestrian, and the hunt. The founding of the Onwentsia Club in 1895 signaled the era of estate culture in Lake Forest. Many of these new residents hired architectural luminaries to design country places and gentleman farms. Corresponding to all this development was the rise of a local service economy, as recent immigrants were drawn to town to exert their skills as shop proprietors, artisans and gardeners. Thus between 1880 and 1910, Lake Forest’s population nearly quadrupled, to around 3,300.

As a result of this population increase, local infrastructure required attention. The turn of the century brought growth to city services and facilities, with a new City Hall, train depot, the first professional police and fire departments, and Gorton and Halsey public schools. Most dramatic was the improvement to the central business district. In 1917, Market Square, the first planned shopping center in the nation, was completed. Architect Howard Van Doren Shaw designed the tree-lined square to open upon the train station and to incorporate access for automobiles.

Lake Forest continued to boom in the roaring ‘20s, as the population rose from 3,600 in 1920 to 6,554 in 1930. With access to the interurban railway and the 1937 completion of the Skokie Highway, transportation to and from Lake Forest became easier than ever. Over the next two decades, public-private partnerships funded a new library, municipal golf course and a modern hospital; federal programs helped build a post office and high school during the leaner Depression years. In 1926, Lake Forest tripled in size to 15 square miles as residents voted to annex the largely rural area on its western border.

The 1950s ushered in a period of rapid change to Lake Forest. Alterations to the tax structure and transitions in familial lifestyles marked the twilight of the estate era. The postwar baby boom and opening of the Tri-State Tollway in 1958 accelerated the construction of new subdivisions, many of which arose in south and west Lake Forest, as well as of five new public school buildings. Amidst all this development, zoning, historic preservation, and open space took on greater significance to the community and its residents; the local government passed ordinances and citizens created organizations to maintain Lake Forest’s historic, low-density character and to conserve the natural landscape. The Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society was formed in 1972 to preserve and showcase the community’s unique identity.

In 1988 and 1990, two more annexations added the Conway Farms and Lake Forest Academy properties to Lake Forest, bringing the total land area to over 17 square miles. At the 2010 census, the population was nearly 20,000.