team of life savers watched over Lake Michigan
In the 1870s, some years before Northwestern played its first intercollegiate football game, many young men were part of a very different University team: the crew of the nation's first and only life-saving station manned by students.
During the course of four decades, 77 Northwestern students saved more than 400 people, including small children and swimmers, from their deaths in Lake Michigan.
"From 1871 until 1916, life-saving was one of the liveliest extra-curricular activities on campus," reported the Daily Northwestern in 1947. "Students here actually stood watches, manned lifeboats and saved lives."
On Sept. 8, 1860, the Milwaukee-bound steamer Lady Elgin collided with a lumber-laden schooner, the Augusta, a few miles north of Evanston. The death toll of 287 would have been greater had it not been for the heroics of a dozen or so Northwestern and Garrett students who volunteered their help. Edward Spencer, class of 1862, was credited with the rescue of 17 people.
The tragedy led to a public outcry for better life-saving facilities. Before the U.S. government could respond, however, the Civil War intervened. Finally, after an especially harsh winter on the Great Lakes, the government presented the University with one life boat in 1871. The boat was entrusted to the senior class who supplied the crew.
A crew of six to eight men was needed during each navigation season, from April 1 to Dec. 1. Strong and vigorous routines were established, including an inspection program and practice with the rescue equipment. The men were to be in a constant state of readiness. These early crews were declared to be "the best organized, drilled and equipped on Lake Michigan."
In 1876, the federal government built and equipped a life-saving station on University property, in the area of what is now Fisk Hall, with the agreement that the station be manned by students. Students on the government payroll received $40 a month, plus an extra $3 for each "wreck trip."
The small stone-and-brick station, 38 by 40 feet, was erected because of a long, submerged reef, the Grosse Point reef, that snakes out into Lake Michigan about a mile north of campus. The reef was hidden peril to ships blown in toward shore.
The 1870s were quiet at the station, and crew members often used the boat for recreation and entertaining coeds. In 1880, the government decided to secure for the station "a man of mature years and with an active seaman's experience and judgement." Lawrence O. Lawson was appointed keeper and remained at the station year-round. He served in that position until 1903.
After participating in numerous rescue operations following lake disasters in the 1880s, the Northwestern life-saving crew faced its biggest challenge during the early morning of Thanksgiving Day, 1889.
The 1,500-ton steamer Calumet, carrying 18 men, had run aground off the newly established Fort Sheridan in Highland Park during "one of the fiercest blizzards known in that region in years," according to the station chief's log. The temperature was not much above zero.
After receiving a telegram from local residents, the Northwestern crew quickly towed one lifeboat north through the snow and arrived as the vessel was ready to break up. Lifelines fired by the cannons fell short, so the crew had no choice but to brave the high and crashing surf. In three trips to the wrecked ship more than 600 yards off shore, the Northwestern students saved the entire Calumet crew.
When the rescue was completed, the students were so numb they could barely walk.
So crucial was the Northwestern crew's role in the rescue that the Secretary of the Treasury awarded Captain Lawson and each of his seven crew members the Gold Medal for distinguished conduct and bravery, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Life-Saving Service. The crew members were the University's early campus heroes.
In 1898, the station was moved to make way for the new Fisk Hall. Northwestern students continued to man the station until 1916 when they were relieved by the U.S. Coast Guard. Finally, in 1931, the Coast Guard moved the life-saving operation to Wilmette Harbor.
The University bought the building for $20 and converted it to the Northwestern men's student union. It later housed psychology offices and commerce classes. In 1954, the 78-year-old building was razed to make room for landscaping of the new Kresge Centennial Hall.
While the building no longer exists, the history of those adventurous days, when Northwestern housed the country's only student-manned life-saving station, remains.
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Last updated 06/19/2002 and © 2002 Northwestern University