Cellstories: 10.19.09: All Other Ground is Sinking Sand

This one I felt like maybe didn’t count for a couple of reasons.  I have known Dan Sinker, the mastermind behind CellStories, for a handful of years now, since my days in Chicago (and his at Punk Planet), and he and I remain intermittent gChatters.  I don’t think he would publish something if he didn’t like it, but even so, he’s a friend, and so to the insecure author who is being published for the first time, it feels somewhat akin to having your mom tell you she loves your writing (sorry, Dan, sorry, Mom).  The second reason that I felt this maybe didn’t quite count as being published was the format: CellStories.net was among the first story-a-day sites available to people with cooler phones than mine.  A brilliant idea, a limited audience.  Many of my friends and co-workers to whom I was bragging were only able to view the site via a technical loophole that’s since been fixed involving Internet Explorer and janky old computers.

More than anything, though, I just kind of don’t like this story very much.  I just came from a weekend in Chicago where I actually stayed in a Streeterville apartment, and upon doing some follow up Wiki research, discovered that many of the facts upon which this story is based may or may not be accurate.  Alas, I guess that’s the way it goes, and really, it’s fiction anyway.  This was originally going to be part of a novel that I ended up scrapping altogether as it was meandering on and on with no point, and largely relied on Elko, Nevada, as a place setting, a place I have never been, except maybe to pass through on the ‘Hound.

All Other Ground is Sinking Sand

Streeterville map

Image via Wikipedia

With a history as a circus promoter, Captain George Wellington Streeter of the 35-ton Reutan steamboat felt an affinity for the ridiculous.  A sudden July thunderstorm precipitated his passengers’ decision to take the train back to Chicago, leaving Captain Streeter, his devoted Maria, and a handful of crewmembers (none of which had the luxury of choice) to press on through the gales and whitecaps, Milwaukee shrinking much too slowly in their wake.*  Having survived the Civil War and, later, evading an elephant attack, Streeter felt that he could also conquer the storm.  As tends to happen, however, disaster struck just as the Reutan was nearing home.  She ran aground on a sandbar not far from Chicago’s water tower.  It wasn’t until the following morning that Cap Streeter was able to take stock of his new environs; despite his wrecked vessel and disastrous landing, he felt more invigorated than he had since fighting the Rebs in Tennessee.

*Accounts differ with regard to the purpose of the Milwaukee trip.  While many refer to Streeter as a “steamboat operator and excursion guide”, at least one account calls the voyage to Milwaukee a dry run for a gun-running operation George and Maria hoped to spearhead in Honduras.  This is not completely ludicrous: according to a New York Times article from January 27, 1886, “A local newspaper publishes this morning the following article: ‘There has been a good deal of suppressed excitement among men in Chicago during the past few days over reports received from the agent of a syndicate of Americans searching for gold in Honduras.’”  Where there is gold, the logic went, there is likely to be guns as well.

In the age of Mark Twain, Streeter himself was a larger-than-life character.  His moustache was a dominant presence on his face, hanging nearly to his chin.  Yet where Twain appeared unkempt, rugged, a wild thing of nature, Streeter was more refined, a small man, surprised by all that he encountered – including, it seemed, his own existence.  So he appeared through the looking glass of N. Kellogg Fairbank, magnate of the N. K. Fairbank Co., who had been able to sell enough nickel cakes of Fairy Soap to reside at one of Chicago’s most exclusive addresses.

Upon waking, Mr. Fairbank had, as he did each morning, his breakfast – one  banana and a cup of coffee – brought to him in his bedroom.  He stepped into the bathroom, splashed his face with cold water (no soap), and returned to take his meal at a small table by the window.  His wife snored quietly in the bed.  Reaching for his coffee he noticed something resembling a boat about four hundred feet out from shore.  From Fairbank’s vantage point, it appeared as though the boat were a model, constructed, rather carelessly, by a child.  With the aid of his looking glass, however, he was able to confirm that the vessel was full sized, even if its captain – beaming, breathing in the morning lake air in full pajamas and nightcap – was not.

“Myrna.”

“Yes sir,”  Myrna was a slight Irish girl, barely twenty years old, whom the Fairbanks kept in their employ for all of their domestic needs.  “Is there something else you’d like?”

Fairbank’s gaze remained fixed upon the water.  He had done so much in life, but he’d always dreamed of a life behind the captain’s wheel.  Like so many powerful men, his successes were merely a metaphor for that which had escaped him.  “Myrna, I’d like you to send a boy out along the sandbar to that man, to ask him if there’s anything he needs and to give him permission to remain until his boat is repaired.”

This rare moment of generosity from the tycoon owed a lot to the fact that his wife wasn’t awake to talk him out of it.  It was also predicated upon the belief that the captain would, in time, see fit to fix his vessel and sail away.  What Fairbank could never have predicted, however, is that a character so unscrupulous as to have promoted the circus and plotted some sort of Central American arms-trading adventure will have little qualms about altering a municipal sign in the dead of night:

No Dumping

CITY OF CHICAGO,

with a little bit of paint, a little bit of moxie, becomes:

Dumping $5

See Boat Captain.

And so Captain George Wellington Streeter was able to amass a small fortune while also creating for himself—by way of construction debris and captured sand—186 acres of prime Chicago real estate.  For Streeter the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was truly great, as it produced a construction boom the likes of which the city had never seen, and he was more than happy to build his empire upon its offal.

This was not the way that the Fairbank fortune had been made, and so the notion that Streeter was able to combine brazen outlawry with dumb luck was enough to turn the soap peddler’s world on its ear.  Weeks went by, during which N. Kellogg Fairbank continued to take his breakfast at that small table by the window, his gaze still fixed on that spot upon the water, a spot which continued to grow in size as time elapsed.  “Something must be done,” he would hiss, the venom in his words drowned out by his wife’s snoring, the finish of the chair’s arm wearing away under the firm grasp of his white-knuckled hands.  “Something must be done,” as he recalled a conversation with an acquaintance from the Tribune at the club: They say this fellow down on the lake set up shop over at the Tremont Hotel.  Say he’s selling plots of ‘land’ – if you want to call it that – to anyone who’ll pay.  Calls it the District of Lake Michigan, and says that the “deestrick” is only under the jurisdiction of the Federal government.  Seems to me someone ought to do something. “Something must be done,” until he got tired of hearing (or not hearing over the snoring) himself say it, and one day rose from his breakfast, took his shotgun in hand, and walked to the shore.

By this time, the Streeter clan was no longer housed in the Reutan, but in another boat that had serendipitously run aground at Streeter’s shantytown.  Upon examining the abandoned vessel and seeing its Castle moniker festooned upon its rather ample hull, Streeter gathered up his people and property and moved them from one shipwreck to the other.  It was to this latest shipwreck that Fairbank set out.

As Fairbank had never been to war, had never lived among circus performers, and had never lived outside the gentry, it can also be said that he had never before approached another man, shotgun in hand, evil in his heart.  Streeter, on the other hand, had learned at a very young age of the cruelty of the world, and of the need to guard his belongings with his life.  In this latest chapter of life, this meant giving parcels of land to members of his crew in exchange for armed sentry work.  Fairbank didn’t have a chance.  Young Peter Zabrocki saw him huffing along his east lawn towards the encampment and opened fire, alerting the other guards to do the same.  It wasn’t long before Fairbank was scampering away, returning to the safety of his home to draft a desperate, angry letter to his lawyer.

While Fairbank’s lawyer was doing what he could to win court cases for his wealthy client (illegal squatting, selling liquor without a license, etc.), old N. K. decided that he needed some Civil War muscle on his side.  To this end he enlisted the help of Allan Pinkerton’s private security firm, the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency.  If the Pinkertons could foil a plot to assassinate President Lincoln, certainly they could run Streeter off of his homemade marsh.

In the end, it wasn’t the Pinkertons, or Fairbank, but rather the Chicago Police Department, some twenty-eight years later, who finally ran Streeter from his empire, which as this point he was calling “the Oasis.”  And just as with later arrests of high profile Chicago criminals, the charge for which Streeter was ultimately brought in was not the one that made him a target: he was charged with violating the law against selling liquor on Sundays.  Despite a number of outgoing shots coming from within the Oasis, this time around, no one was injured.  According to the Times (November 15, 1915), “On Oct. 12 last Mrs. Streeter shot and wounded a policeman who had arrested her husband on a charge of selling beer without a license.”  And even in these late years, Streeter had succeeded in enlisting his tenants in the Oasis’ defense with varying degrees of success: “Harry de Carmaker, 17, who lives with Streeter, was found shivering on a cake of ice in a refrigerator guarding the supply of beer with a rifle.  He surrendered without firing a shot.”

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