Know Chicago

In its raucous, brawling youth, Chicago spawned many a bizarre character. But probably none ever aroused as much attention as George Wellington (Cap) Streeter. For Streeter kept the city in an uproar for about 30 years in his physical and legal battles with the authorities over his claims to ownership of 186 acres of land, now some of the city's highest-priced real estate. The area that is bounded roughly by the Chicago River, Lake Michigan, Lake Shore Dr. and Michigan Av.

It all started on a stormy night in 1886 when Streeter's steamer Reutan ran aground a block south of Chicago Av. and more than 400 feet from shore. Streeter decided to live aboard the grounded ship and had a crude stone breakwater built to the north of it. Bit by bit, drifting sand, plus loads of debris that Streeter encouraged contractors to dump there, filled in the area.

Cap, a colorful character, usually appeared wearing a top hat and frock coat over work clothes. He almost always had a rifle in the crook of his arm to ward off the ever-threatening constabulary. He proclaimed the land to be the "District of Lake Michigan" (or Dee-strict, as he called it), contending it was his through "squatter's rights."

Over the years, he fought many a pitched battle with the law and with real estate interests who sought control of the area. Around him, Cap gathered a scraggly crew who made up his "army." He sold lots, guzzled quantities of whisky and gave out innumerable interviews. During the long "Streeterville War," 15 men were killed or died of wounds and unnumbered others were injured. In 1905, after one killing, Cap was convicted of murder - but served only nine months of a life sentence before being pardoned.

Cap based his legal case on an 1821 federal survey that set the city's and the state's border at the lakeshore - then less than 100 feet east of Michigan Av. The boundary was not changed until Cap lost his court case. He died in 1921.


[Credits: Chicago Historical Society]

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