Fall 2015

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A lifesaving crew hauls in a surfboat from Lake Michigan in 1909. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

Snapshots from Northwestern’s Past

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Ask Geoffrey

Snapshots from Northwestern’s Past

Tell us what you think. E-mail comments or questions to the editors at letters@northwestern.edu.

Geoffrey Baer loves digging up little-known tidbits of Chicago history. We asked him to share some of his favorite Northwestern-related stories.

The Sinking of the Lady Elgin

One of Lake Michigan’s most devastating shipwrecks occurred on Sept. 8, 1860, when the Lady Elgin foundered off the coast of Winnetka, a few miles north of campus. Nearly 300 people drowned, but Northwestern student Edward Spencer (class of 1862) became a local hero after saving at least 17 lives. “He tied a rope around his waist, dove in and swam toward the struggling survivors,” Baer says. “They’d pull him in to shore with a victim, and he’d dive in and do it again. Later he collapsed and was apparently never the same afterward.” Spencer remained a semi-invalid for the rest of his life, though he lived to the age of 81.

The Student Coast Guard

Northwestern students served on a volunteer rescue crew from 1871 to 1916, when the national Coast Guard was established. “They would drag their surfboat up to the Northwestern train tracks, flag down a passing train and load the boat on board,” says Baer. “When they got to where they were needed, they’d drag the boat down the bluffs and lower it to the water. They also had a cannon for shooting out a grappling hook.” On Thanksgiving Day in 1889, the Evanston crew saved 18 sailors during the wreck of the steamer Calumet in subzero temperatures. That rescue and other heroics made them popular on campus; a Chicago Tribune report of the time noted that the lakefront filled with young ladies during the crew’s afternoon drills. (See "Then: Life's a Beach," summer 2011.)

McKinlock IllustrationThe Lost McKinlock Campus

For a recent “Ask Geoffrey” segment on the television show Chicago Tonight, Baer was asked about a wrought-iron gate that sits at the corner of Lake Shore Drive and Huron Street on Northwestern’s Chicago campus. Erected in 1930, it’s all that remains of what was the Alexander McKinlock Memorial Campus, named in honor of a soldier who died during World War I. His parents pledged more than $250,000 to Northwestern but later lost much of their wealth during the Great Depression. The gift was cancelled, and the McKinlock name was removed from the campus at the request of the father, who was a member of the Board of Trustees. One memorial to the fallen soldier does remain at his alma mater, Harvard University: the dormitory McKinlock Hall. (See "What's in a Name?: McKinlock Gate," fall 2012.) — E.C.B.