'Hooray for Captain Streeter!'

July 3, 2012

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Though he didn’t find his life’s mission until he was 50 years old, George Wellington Streeter has achieved a kind of immortality: One of Chicago’s swankiest neighborhoods carries his name, all because he originated a local version of the Occupy Movement.

Streeter was born in Michigan in 1837, one of 13 children. He had little formal education, and scuffled through different jobs — logger, miner, ice-cutter, carnival showman, mariner. In the summer of 1886 he got into a scheme to run guns to Honduras.

While trying out his little steamship in a Lake Michigan storm, Streeter ran up on a sandbar off Superior Street. He couldn’t move, so he decided to stay there.

Everything east of Michigan Avenue was then a swamp. Streeter convinced local builders to dump their debris near his ship. Gradually the area filled in, and became land. 

Meanwhile, Streeter discovered that his man-made land was beyond the boundaries of both Chicago and Illinois. As a Union captain in the Civil War, he had a right to a homestead. He announced he was establishing the independent District of Lake Michigan, with no authority above him except the U.S. government.

Streeter began selling lots to speculators. Squatters arrived, and built shacks in the district’s 186 acres. Industrialist N.K. Fairbank, who claimed he owned the area, tried the evict Streeter. The Captain ran him off with a load of buckshot.

All through the 1890s and 1900s, there were sporadic attempts to remove Streeter and his supporters. The raids were usually conducted by private detectives working for real estate interests. Sometimes the police did the honors. When things quieted down, the occupiers would creep back.

The Captain himself had a keen eye for public relations. He portrayed himself as a little guy taking on the big-money fat cats. On that basis, whenever Streeter turned up in a news story, most Chicagoans sympathized with him. Besides, he was putting on a good show.

He had good lawyers, too. The various cases against Streeter dragged through the courts into the 1910s. Most of the delays were caused by jurisdictional issues.

Looking back from the safety of another century, the whole matter seems like harmless fun. It wasn’t always. Over the years, an unknown number of people were killed. In 1902 Streeter himself was convicted in the death of an opposition slugger. He was pardoned after nine months in prison.

By 1918 Streeter’s domain was reduced to a few blocks around a tar-paper “castle” when he was arrested for peddling liquor without a license. Shortly afterward, new warrants were obtained by Chicago Title and Trust Company. There was one more raid, and the Captain was again ousted from the lakeshore.

He never returned. Streeter spent the next few years operating a floating hot dog stand in East Chicago. When the old rogue died in 1921, the Mayor of Chicago attended the funeral. So did many of the real estate magnates Streeter had battled over the decades.

They probably came to make sure he was really dead.