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A life-saving crew hauls in a surfboat from Lake Michigan in 1909
A life-saving crew hauls in a surfboat from Lake Michigan in 1909

Lake Michigan's Legendary Lifeguards

Weinberg Students Reawaken Memories of Heroism

In the not-too-distant future, a gleaming new building at the southeast edge of campus will welcome visitors to Northwestern and offer a view of one of the world’s great natural treasures—Lake Michigan. Visitors on a sunny day will enjoy its shimmering surface, most likely unaware of the violent history that lies beneath.

The people who stood in a different building on that same patch of land less than 100 years ago weren’t simply enjoying the view. They were, in fact, tasked with saving the lives of passengers and sailors on ships that frequently ran aground a few hundred feet off the coast of the North Shore.

And most remarkable of all, these fearless rescuers were Northwestern students. Members of the all-male crew lived in the U.S. Life-Saving Station—the first one to be built on Lake Michigan. From there, they scanned the lake for signs of trouble and traversed treacherous waters to haul in survivors of shipwrecks.

Hardly anyone remembers Northwestern’s life-saving crew these days. A few bricks half-buried in the thicket bordering the lakefront path and Clark Street Beach, just east of Fisk Hall, were all that could be seen by passersby for decades; last summer they were removed to break ground for the visitors center. But before they disappeared, a project launched by a Weinberg College professor and his students reawakened memories of former students’ heroism, provided hands-on archeological experience, and paved the way for a closer look at campus life from the 1870s through the early 1900s.

The project also highlights how Northwestern students excited by a topic can open up unexpected areas of inquiry and historical research.

“This project tells us something about the commercial and maritime history of the region. It tells us about the transportation system that impacted the entire region. It tells us about the student body, and several celebrated instances of bravery,” observes Kevin Leonard, university archivist and assistant director of special collections.

Digging in the Dirt

Mark Hauser, assistant professor of anthropology, typically brings students in his Archeological Survey class to University Archives to learn about different ways they can access historical records and maps to find potential archeological sites. During their visit, the students watched a video made by Stephen Rettger ’09 that recounts the history of the former station and boathouse. Leonard mentioned to Hauser that he had noticed rubble on the site of the old station, and that it wouldn’t be there long because of the planned construction of the visitor center.

Hauser didn’t need to be told twice. He immediately switched the class archeology project from a site at 1804 Hinman (the former home of the founder of the School of Communication) to the station, and within weeks students were preparing to start their dig.

The students scanned the area with handheld GPS units to determine where to start digging. For two days last May, a group of undergraduate and graduate students excavated two sites, one of which was part of the center and the other a remnant of the adjacent boathouse. They chipped away the topsoil to reveal the floor of the center and the entrance to what appeared to be a cistern or water transport pipe, and Eric Johnson ’13 found some ceramic shards, indicating that the site had served as a residence.

Although the excavation didn’t yield many objects, it did give students invaluable experience. “Students put into practice all the things they had learned in class, such as mapping the region, researching background information, coming up with questions and planning test units,” Hauser explains. “It was a good case where students took basic practices of archeology and implemented them. They rarely have a chance to do this, and they did quite a good job.”

The project gave Leah North ’13, an anthropology major, her first experience with hands-on archeology. “It’s one thing to read about it, and it’s another to get your trowel in the dirt,” she says. “You have to put yourself back in the moment. It takes a lot of creativity to picture what was going on at that time to uncover the past. It was really cool to be able to do that.”

A Turbulent History

Over the course of the project, Hauser’s students learned about the station’s remarkable history and the events—such as the Lady Elgin disaster—that led to its creation.

Early in the morning of Sept. 8, 1860, Evanston residents awoke to a horrifying sight. The Lady Elgin, considered the largest, finest passenger ship traveling between Chicago and the upper Great Lakes, had collided in stormy waters with a schooner around midnight and had begun to sink. Although accounts of the number of passengers vary, an estimated 19 people boarded lifeboats, leaving almost 400 others to fend for themselves.

Spectators on the shore watched as people struggled desperately to swim to the beach. A group of Northwestern and Garrett Biblical Institute students plunged into the lake to save as many as they could. The students included Charles Fowler, a future University president, and Edward Spencer, who swam back and forth in churning waves for six hours, eventually saving 17 people by himself. A plaque commemorating Spencer’s courageous feats that day still hangs at Patten Gym.

After finishing the rescue, a wounded and exhausted Spencer was reported to have asked, “Tell me the truth--did I do my best?” He never fully recovered from his ordeal and spent much of the rest of his life as a semi-invalid.

Spencer, Fowler, and other students managed to save 30 of the approximately 95 people who were ultimately rescued. The wreck’s high death toll angered the public, who demanded a life-saving station to watch over the North Shore’s coastline, made perilous by several sandbars and the infamous Grosse Point reef. It wasn’t until 1871, after the Civil War, that an officer of the U.S. Navy approached Northwestern with an offer to provide a lifeboat if the University supplied the manpower, and so a deal was struck.

Romance Flourishes, Life-Saving Not So Much

The first Northwestern crew comprised only seniors. It didn’t matter if they were familiar with the lake or even knew how to swim. Not surprisingly, the crew wasn’t very effective. It didn’t help that men and women students in the 1870s could share each other’s company only under the sharp eyes of a chaperone, so the lifeboat became a useful way for them to have some time alone out on the water.

Although there were 24 shipwrecks along the North Shore between 1871 and 1880, crewmembers did not use the lifeboat once for life-saving purposes. Government officials in Washington, D.C., must have taken note, because in 1880 they made some changes.

A New Captain in Town

Captain Lawrence Lawson, a seasoned, formidable-looking seaman, took command of the crew and whipped its members into shape. He allowed only the most capable students to serve on his crew and ran them through tough drills to keep them fit and ready.

Lawson’s leadership coincided with a huge increase in maritime activity around Chicago. By the mid-1880s, Chicago was the busiest port in the nation, which unfortunately resulted in a greater number of shipwrecks. Under Lawson, the Northwestern crew participated in more than 40 daring rescue operations. One of the best-known was the 1889 wreck of the Calumet, a cargo steam propeller that ran aground off the coast of Fort Sheridan. Students risked their lives to save all 18 members of the Calumet crew in blinding sleet and rain. For their heroism, each student received a Congressional gold medal.

Lawson retained his position until 1903, during which time his crews helped rescue 68 ships and saved more than 400 lives. In 1914, the U.S. Coast Guard took over operations and in 1916 decided to run it with full-time personnel. In 1932, the Coast Guard sold the station to the University for $20. The building was used as a men’s union and later as classroom space before it was torn down in 1954.

Big Men on Campus

Thanks to their success as rescuers, crew members became hugely popular on campus from the 1880s through the early 1900s. “The crew was the epitome of masculinity before Northwestern had sports teams,” says North, who is using the example of the station to anchor a discussion of gender on campus for her senior thesis.

North points out that the station’s southern location contradicts the campus’s traditional cultural divide between north and south. “The north attracts more stereotypically masculine interests such as the hard sciences, the fraternity quad and gyms, versus the south, which has more stereotypically feminine humanities buildings and performance spaces.

“The period when the station was active was between the Civil War and World War I, which was an interesting time for masculinity in this country. I’m interested in exploring how ideas of masculinity played into that site.”

Lake Michigan Beckons

According to Hauser, more opportunities await Weinberg College’s up-and-coming archeologists, especially in the area of maritime archeology.

“If you think about Chicago as a hub of transportation and a hub of industry, you have all the aspects coming off the shores of Evanston,” he says. “You have iron ore freighters coming off the coast, you have ferries going between here and western Michigan, pleasure craft, and fishing boats. There are a lot of stories to be told when it comes to the interface between Northwestern and its maritime neighbors. From an archeological standpoint, this is only very much in its infancy.”

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