The sun was high and warm and I opened the parka and sweater, daydreaming of spring and summer beaches. The blue sky, the cool Lake Michigan breezes and me in my beach chair, just getting into a good book. My walk took me past Fairbanks and Erie where two eighty-something year-old buildings were being demolished.
The cranes and bulldozers had reached the basement level and were removing all traces of the last eight decades. I don’t know what I expected to see but I peeked through a crack in the fence surrounding the site. They were moving tons of – sand? Somehow very fine beach sand had gotten beneath two old buildings located at least a half-mile from the lake. “Sand?” I thought to myself. Then I remembered, “This is Streeterville. ”
I knew the neighborhood was named for George Wellington (Cap) Streeter and that he was an enterprising old rascal who piloted his boat up and down the lake front in the 1880’s, peddling everything from lumber to liquor, but I didn’t know that much about him. A trip to the Encyclopedia of Chicago revealed that one moonless night Cap’s boat got hung up on a sandbar near the shore of what was then called the “Sands”, an accumulation of sand and sandbars north of a pier built in 1834 at the mouth of the Chicago River. Chicago being what it was at the time, a population of squatters soon gathered and a vice district grew up on the Sands. The vice dens were eventually wiped out, but thanks to Cap Streeter, they got a new start when an ever-larger sandbar grew around his stranded craft and swelled to 180 acres. Cap was soon doing a land office business in most everything, legal and illegal. Mrs. Streeter even set up housekeeping on her own houseboat in the Sands.
With this development vice had moved offshore and would prove to be quite a lot more difficult to root out. In those days Chicago was often equated with the Wild West, so it was fitting for Cap to decide that, because his boat had established the “island” it was on, it was therefore outside the jurisdiction of Illinois. He vowed to fight all efforts to evict him and his “Deestric of Lake Michigan”. Threats flew back and forth until the whole affair escalated into gun battles before the authorities finally charged Cap’s fortress and ripped it down. His days as Emperor of Streeterville finally ended as he was carted off to prison.
If the city was never fond of Cap Streeter, the news hounds certainly were. Throughout the years of his reign he was the darling of the news business. And his statue, erected a couple of years ago at the corner of Grand and McClurg is our constant reminder that any given walk around our town can end up in an intriguing history lesson – and a nostalgic trip back to the wild west.
Below: map of the current Streeterville neighborhood