“Cap” Streeter’s steamboat Reutan ran into a sandbar 450 feet off of Chicago’s near north shore on July 10, 1886. Turning misfortune into opportunity, he claimed the area as the independent United States District of Lake Michigan. He filled the sandbar area with landfill, secured a title, sold lots and collected taxes on them. This area came to be known as Streeterville, the tony northern end of Michigan Avenue. Or at least that is one version of the story.
Born in Flint, MI, in 1837, George “Cap” Streeter served in the Union Army (as a private, not a captain). His first wife Minnie left him for life in vaudeville. He and his second wife Maria made plans to pilot Reutan to Honduras and become gunrunners. This was too cost prohibitive.
Whether or not Reutan actually hit a sandbar, it stayed where it was. He eventually replaced the ship with his stronghold. The top half was his home and the bottom half was his “war room.” Post-fire, Chicago was undergoing a building boom. Streeter solicited fees from contractors to allow them to dump the excavation fill around his boat. An 1821 government survey deemed his 186 acres of United States District of Lake Michigan outside of Chicago and Illinois boundaries. This ruffled the feathers of nearby landowners like Potter Palmer and N.K. Fairbank.
Using forged documents, Streeter sold property that he did not necessarily own. Police and private detectives tried to oust “Cap.” He and Maria responded by dousing them with boiling water or firing bird shot from muskets. “Cap” faced the courts several times. He eventually was sentenced for the murder of gunman John Kirk, but was pardoned by the Governor of Illinois after nine months. In the meantime, Maria died.
He married his third wife Emma “Ma” Streeter. She held a similar temperament. When the Chicago Title and Trust Company went after the fortress, she retaliated with a meat clever. “Cap” died of pneumonia on January 24, 1921. He never actually divorced his first wife Minnie, so the courts would not allow “Ma” to file claims on his property.
The property continues to be valuable. The John Hancock Center now towers where the Reutan fortress used to be. A statue of “Cap” stands at Grand Avenue and McClurg Court.
More details and pictures of the colorful Streeter can be found at www.capstreeter.com.