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Collegiate Coast Guard involvement runs deep

posted Mar 20, 2012, 12:41 PM by Jacob Thayer   [ updated Mar 20, 2012, 7:58 PM by Andrew Welch ]
AUP members are often interested in the history of the agency in which they serve.  Recently, several members discovered a surprising, often overlooked tale of college students involved with the Life-Saving Service.  The Life-Saving Service was one of the precursors of the Coast Guard that merged with the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 to create the Coast Guard.  The following is the article written by JD Decastra and Jake Shaw.

We were not the first university program in the history of the Coast Guard. The following story tells of a rescue by the crew of the Evanston Life-Saving Station, on the campus of Northwestern University. The station was manned entirely by college students.

The following are excerpts from C. Douglas Kroll's, A Coast Guardsman's History of the U.S Coast Guard.

“Not all Life-saving stations were located on the seacoasts of the United States. Some were on the great lakes. The one at Evanston, Illinois, also has an unusual crew of university students

Northwestern University, in Evanston along the shores of Lake Michigan, received the gift of a lifeboat in 1871. In 1876 the university built a red-brick lifesaving station to house it. Students were selected for the crew, who selected their own captain. Eventually the Life-Saving Service felt the station needed a seasoned mariner to oversee the operation.

Lawrence Oscar Lawson, a Swedish immigrant who had fished and sailed on the great lakes for many years and lived in Evanston, was the obvious choice for the new position. There were fears that an outsider and seasoned sailor would not be able to get the cooperation of his student crew. But those fears proved unfounded, as Lawson quickly won the love and respect of all the students. His crew did provide him with some unusual challenges, however.

In 1900 the Chicago Tribune reported that Lawson was concerned that his surfmen were not keeping their minds completely on their duties. Both before and following afternoon drills, the lakeshore was filled with young ladies talking to his crew. But under Lawson’s guidance, they would become some of the best and bravest surfmen in the Life-Saving Service, as demonstrated by the wreck of the steamer Calumet.

On Thanksgiving Day 1889 at 10:30 pm, the 1,500-ton steamer Calumet ran aground to prevent its sinking, about 12 miles from the Evanston Life-Saving Station. A local resident discovered the wreck and telephoned the station, “There is a large vessel ashore off Fort Sheridan. Come!”

Fort Sheridan was an Army installation more than ten miles up the lakeshore at Highland Park, Illinois. The thermometer was 22 degrees below zero, and the strong gale made the wind-shill factor much colder. Upon notification keeper Lawson, with no freight train available to carry his boat to the site, rented teams of horses from the livery stable. The horses pulled the boat, beach equipment, and some of the crew to the wrecked vessel. Lawson and the remainder of the crew boarded a passenger train and arrived first to survey the situation.

Overlooking the sire were seventy-to-eighty-foot bluffs. A fire was built atop the hill for warmth, and to encourage those on the Calumet. Keeper Lawson wanted to reach the vessel by breeches buoy rather than risking the lives of his student surfmen, as well as the destruction of their boat. The Lyle gun was aimed and fired twice from the hill to attempt a breeches-buoy rescue, but the ship was to far offshore: both times the projectile fell short.

Keeper Lawson now had no alternative; he was forced to use his boat. Aided by 50 soldiers from nearby Fort Sheridan, along with some civilians, they wrestled the boat down the cliff and to the beach. They had to cut a pathway through the thick brush. Everyone helped with the cutting, but Lawson’s surfmen did the most dangerous work.

Working waist-deep in the icy water, the soldiers and civilians got the boat into position. As a wave lifted the boat they gave a mighty push, while the surfmen sprang to their oars. Facing the full brunt of one of Lake Michigan’s fall storms, Lawson and his crew soon found their clothing, oars, and oarlocks covered with ice.

The college students were not weather-hardened fishermen, yet they performed in professional Life-Saving Service manner. They had grown up in the area, and arctic conditions were nothing new to them. Eventually they reached the steamer, took about half a dozen survivors on board, and returned to the beach. They continued boat trips until all 18 sailors on the Calumet were safely ashore.

For their heroism in extremely adverse circumstances, the entire crew of Evanston Station was awarded the Golden Life-Saving Medal.”

To learn more about your brothers of a century ago and the “first university program”, go to:

On YouTube:

Andrew Welch,
Mar 20, 2012, 12:41 PM