How Football Capsized N’Western’s ‘Rescue’ Team

When it comes to sports, Northwestern University has had a mixed bag of success & failure. The Wildcats have had well-known struggles in ‘revenue sports’, i.e. a football team that once had a 34-game losing streak & a men’s basketball team that has never been to the NCAA tournament. But NU has also excelled through other athletic avenues, such as a women’s lacrosse squad that has won four national championships in a row (and counting), and a softball team that were national runners-up in 2006.

Northwestern boat

However, before any of these activities came to Evanston, there was one squad on campus that not only kept its members in shape, but also rescued many shipwrecked souls - the Northwestern Life-Saving team.

THE WIZ OF ODDS and LAKE THE POSTS share the story from NORTH BY NORTHWESTERN of the university’s first ‘varsity’ sports team - an on-shore lifeboat crew made up entirely of students.

The team’s story began on September 8, 1860, when the steamer Lady Elgin collided with the schooner Augusta, killing 287 passengers. NU students had gathered on the Lake Michigan shore to witness the carnage - and one student took it upon himself to help save some lives:

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.

Soon after the Lady Elgin disaster, the U.S. Navy promised to build a permanent lifeboat station on campus, “on the condition that students would train themselves and do their best to aid distressed mariners.” In 1876, Grade Station #12 was erected - and during the next 40 years, the NU crew saved 481 people from a watery grave.

Northwestern lifeboat team

(”Row, row, row your boat … come on guys, sing!“)

But by 1915, the fame of the life-saving crew had withered - as had the strength of its ranks. And it was all thanks to the game on the gridiron:

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 (Captain Lawrence) 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].”

In the end, football won out, while the life-saving crew sunk into oblivion. More college lads prefered to strap on pads & helmets than lifejackets, and athletes would rather try for touchdowns than try not to drown.

OK, so the football Wildcats haven’t won a bowl game since 1949. And the Wildcats b-ball team is still waiting for their first ticket to the Big Dance. But not many other schools can claim that their first collegiate sport saved almost 500 lives.