On this day 180 years ago (28 January 1836), John L. Wilson purchased 33 hectares of land about 16 km from the city, by what is now 83rd and Cottage Grove. At the time it was a swath of prairie two hours outside Chicago. But through a series of missteps, slow City workers, and a very long-lived lawsuit, no one developed the land until 1940, by which time the city had grown to surround the lot on all sides:
The property was so remote—and the value so depressed—that nobody paid much attention to it for nearly 40 years. Then, in 1875, Isaac Palmer discovered that the original land patent had been issued in his name by mistake. He decided to cash in on it.
So now the matter went to the Superior Court of Cook County. By the time the Illinois Supreme Court got the case, the City of Chicago was involved, as well as the successors to Wilson and Palmer. In 1887 the Supreme Court ruled that the Wilson successors had legal title to the property. The City of Chicago also had a valid mortgage of $1,500 against it, with 10% annual interest dating back to the unpaid October 1836 mortgage.
Except there was yet another complication—most land records had been lost in the 1871 Chicago Fire. The further details of the dispute don’t need to be elaborated here, except to say that many lawyers were kept busy over the next fifty years, with the 80-acre plot remaining vacant while the rest of the area was built up.
On August 4, 1939 the drama ended. Compound interest over 102 years had ballooned the defaulted $1,500 mortgage to $34,755,000. Because of all the mistakes various governments had made over the years, Janet Fairbank—the last holder in the chain of title from original patentee John L. Wilson—was allowed to settle the debt and have clear title to the property on payment of $30,000.
For what it's worth, $1,500 in 1837 is about $38,000 today, and $34.8m in 1939 is around $590m today.