Contested Shore: Property Rights in Reclaimed Land and the Battle for Streeterville

Kearney, Joseph D., Merrill, Thomas W. | March 1, 2013

Land reclaimed from navigable waters is a resource uniquely susceptible to conflict. The multiple reasons for this include traditional hostility to interference with navigable waterways and the weakness of rights in submerged land. In Illinois, title to land reclaimed from Lake Michigan was further clouded by a shift in judicial understanding in the late nineteenth century about who owned the submerged land, starting with an assumption of private ownership but eventually embracing state ownership. The potential for such legal uncertainty to produce conflict is vividly illustrated by the history of the area of Chicago known as Streeterville, the area of reclaimed land along Lake Michigan north of the Chicago River and east of Michigan Avenue. Beginning in the 1850s, Streeterville was subject to repeated waves of litigation, assertions of squatters’ rights (most notably by George Wellington Streeter, for whom the area is named), conspiracies to obtain federal land grants based on veterans’ rights, schemes in reliance on claims of Native Americans, and a public works project designed to secure the claims of wealthy riparian owners. The riparian owners eventually won the many-sided battle, but only after convincing institutions such as Northwestern University to build substantial structures on the land. The history of Streeterville suggests that when legal title to reclaimed land is highly uncertain, conflict over control of the land is likely to persist until one or more persons succeed in establishing what is perceived to be possession of the land.