Joggers can easily recognize the woodsy thicket just east of Fisk Hall while heading north to the Lakefill. For sailors and beach volleyball players, it forms a boundary between the beach and Sheridan Road, work and recreation. For the rest of us, it is but a campus afterthought — just another clump of flora spared being treated in asphalt and academia that we might happen to pass on our way to swim on Dillo Day. But for a span of forty years, the site provided Northwestern with a level of pride and excitement not seen at any football game and the sort of national recognition no magazine ranking could ever afford.
The story of Northwestern’s Life-Saving Crew, which operated from that now-wooded location on South Beach from 1876 to 1916, is one born of tragedy, bred in heroism but now mostly forgotten. Few student-run organizations have been awarded a medal from Congress, convinced Theodore Roosevelt to take up their cause, or been asked to represent the country abroad — not to mention saving more than 481 people from the waters of Lake Michigan. The closest anyone has come to matching that list of accomplishments is Matt Grevers, and even then he comes up short by about 481 lives.
The Life-Saving Crew was not the product of university planning or any great initiative; rather, it grew out of the spontaneous response of students to one of the greatest disasters recorded in the annals of sea-faring craft. On September 8, 1860, the steamer Lady Elgin collided with the schooner Augusta on Lake Michigan a few miles north of Evanston. Of the 385 passengers on board, 287 were lost. A tugboat saved 98, while the remainder washed towards shore. Thirty castaways made it through the breakers to within swimming distance of a number of students from the university and the Garrett Biblical Institute who had amassed on the shore.
Among the group was Edward Spencer who, with a rope tied around his waist, dove into the water and over the course of six hours, rescued 17 passengers. After hauling the seventeenth person to shore, he was heard to repeatedly exclaim, “Did I do my best? Did I do my best?” So along with being Northwestern’s first hero, Spencer apparently set the tone for a certain Northwestern tradition of understated self-promotion as well. Spencer’s exertion left him a semi-invalid, however, and he withdrew from his studies soon after the ordeal.
The tragedy of the Lady Elgin coupled with the heroism displayed by Edward Spencer and his compatriots led many to call for the establishment of a permanent lifeboat station. Commodore Murray of the United States Navy promised Northwestern a fully furnished lifeboat on the condition that students would train themselves and do their best to aid distressed mariners.
“We suggest the students themselves procure another boat that there may be competition in their exercise,” read an editorial published in October 1871 by The Northwestern Christian Advocate, the official Methodist newspaper of the region. “[Then] let two sets of officers and men be appointed for each boat and in that way many students will obtain all the best exercise they want.”
The editorial probably had less to do with the dire conditions on the lake and more with the lackluster state of university athletics up to that point. It would be five years before Northwestern built its first gymnasium (thanks to efforts of a student-organized joint-stock company and replete with bowling alley and mechanical horse), and it wasn’t until the 1880s that the university found its first major sport in the form of tug-of-war (1892-93 Champions, baby!). Considering the environment, the addition of boats to the lakeshore proved to be a huge windfall for student life.
In the early 1870s the boats — 28 feet long, five-and-a-half feet at the widest point and covered in sheet iron — were as much pleasure craft as they were rescue vessels. A lack of ships in distress caused the boats to be used primarily for social diversions. Exacerbating this trend was a university decree that women could only go out on the lake if accompanied by a crew member. This, coupled with the fact that the crew was at first selected from the senior class, by the senior class, made crew members the big men on campus. Of course this was cause for much grumbling in the ranks of the underclassmen and eventually the seniors-only policy was abandoned in favor of a more egalitarian (and no doubt more effective) approach.
In 1876, a 38×40 foot life preserving station was erected near what is now Fisk Hall for $4000. Grade Station No. 12, as it was called, became the only station under federal direction with a crew comprised entirely of students.
The first crew to be selected from the university at large, the 1880 team numbered five. Each “surfman” was paid $50 a month for his services, which included guard duty and weekly drills on the lake. An addition $3 was paid per “wreck-trip” the crew undertook. The crew then was perhaps the earliest and most extreme form of work-study at Northwestern.
Buoy of leadership
But what is a team without a leader — a coach, if you apply the term in its most overarching sense? The life-saving crew found that man in the person of Lawrence Lawson. Born in Sweden in 1842, Lawson arrived in America as a 19-year-old merchant seaman. He came to Chicago in 1864 and spent the next decade and a half as a fisherman and boat captain before being appointed keeper of the Evanston Lifesaving Station in 1880. Lawson would go on to do battle with the waters of the Lake for twenty-three years as station keeper.
“Without him as leader, the Evanston crew would not have won more than average fame,” wrote Arthur Herbert Wilde, who wrote Northwestern University: A History, 1855-1905. “[He was] a genuine teacher, a trainer in the finest of arts — the art of making men as well as of saving life.”
But even as he and his crew saved scores of people from drowning on the lake, they were not without heavy scrutiny and occasional reproach from the press. Browsing through the myriad clippings in Captain Lawson’s scrapbook is like reading some kind of maritime sports section. And while most was laudatory coverage (The Sunday Times-Herald ran a full-page spread on its Dec. 5, 1895 front page titled “Evanston’s Life-Savers, A Review of the Season of 1895” that included illustrations of Lawson and the seven-man crew sitting as if for a team portrait), on at least one occasion the crew was accused of dogging it.
But apart from the occasional newspaper criticism, the crew continued to perform admirably. Between 1883-1904, they saved 436 lives in 70 boat trips, aiding 58 vessels in total. Another 45 lives were saved using a beach apparatus — a line shot from shore and used to pull castaways from the water — as well as other means.
The Nov. 28, 1889 rescue of the steamer Calumet during a blizzard saw Lawson and company awarded gold medals by Secretary of the Treasury William Windom.
“They were considered to be one of the best drilled crews in the country, and during the past year did more work and saved more lives than all the 22 stations on lakes accomplished in the two previous years save the one at Lewes in Delaware,” wrote the 1890 Syllabus yearbook in summation of that watershed year in lifesaving.
A campus in transit
But the 1889 season and the rescue of the Calumet was crew’s high point. The 1890s saw another campus activity — one distinctly more collegiate and certainly less wet — begin to capture the hearts and minds of Northwestern students. Football had come into its own, and for Lawson’s crew — among the most able-bodied men on campus — the sport presented a quandary of sorts.
“Referring to the matter of football,” wrote the Assistant Inspector of the Federal Life-Saving Service in a letter to Lawson in Oct. 1897, “I am surprised to know that several members of your crew are on the University team this year. I understand that we had a promise from these men, before they were engaged last spring that they would not play football at all this season… In no case is a game of foot-ball or foot-ball practice, to be considered sufficient excuse for granting a surfman liberty [from the station].”
But a true campus schism between surfmen and leatherheads would never manifest itself. In 1898 the construction of Fisk Hall made it necessary to move the Life-Saving Station. This, coupled with Lawson’s announced plans to retire and football’s established popularity, placed lifesaving in second chair at Northwestern.
Even as the golden age of Evanston’s lake-side rescuers began to fade at the turn of the century, students continued to man the station until 1915, when the Coast Guard took over. In 1931 the station was finally moved to Wilmette.
In 1947, a small monument was dedicated to the 77 students who served the Life-Saving Station, but that stone and plaque have since disappeared. The Life-Saving Crew had as much to do with Northwestern’s reputation and national standing in that first half-century than any other team or campus organization has had in any span of time since. The era of the Life-Saving Crew may have passed, but if anything is in need of rescuing today, it is Northwestern’s sense of its own history.