May 2010: “I Didn’t Know That!”

How well do you know the North Shore? There’s a lot of hidden history here that might surprise you even if you’re a lifelong North Shore dweller.

For example, Lake Michigan mariners in distress off the North Shore once relied on a squad of specially trained Northwestern University students to rescue them.

The lifesaving station was established at Northwestern’s Evanston campus in 1880 with the valiant Captain Lawrence Oscar Lawson in command. When a ship was reported sinking, Lawson’s young men hauled their lifeboat to the scene using a team of horses or sometimes a passing train. They often had to carry the heavy boat down steep bluffs to the beach before rowing out into the stormy seas. Over the years, Northwestern lifesavers rescued the crews from dozens of foundering ships.

The station was disbanded in 1915 when the U.S. Coast Guard was created.

Speaking of maritime mayhem, try your hand at this quiz:

On September 8, 1860 the passenger steamship Lady Elgin sank off the Winnetka shore with at least 500 people aboard. Some 300 perished. What was the cause of the disaster?
a. The Navy training vessel U.S.S. Wilmette sank her by mistake.
b. She collided with another ship in a storm.
c. She ran aground.

a. WRONG. The U.S.S. Wilmette sank a captured German submarine for target practice in the waters off Chicago in 1921. But before becoming a Navy ship the Wilmette was a passenger steamer called the S.S. Eastland and she was involved in the only Great Lakes maritime disaster WORSE than the sinking of the Lady Elgin. It happened on July 24, 1915 in the Chicago River. The Eastland was preparing to leave her dock near the Clark Street Bridge when she rolled over on her side with more than 2,000 passengers aboard. More than 800 people died.

b. RIGHT! It was after midnight and the Lady Elgin was steaming for Milwaukee in a fierce thunderstorm. Suddenly an out-of-control cargo schooner called the Augusta rammed the Lady Elgin amidships. The crippled schooner made it to Chicago. But in less than half an hour, the Lady Elgin sank. Survivors clung to floating debris as the storm blew them toward shore nine miles away. By dawn they were nearing beaches in Wilmette and Evanston. But pounding surf broke up the makeshift rafts and many victims were drawn back out to sea before the eyes of helpless onlookers.

c. WRONG. There are notorious shallows or shoals off of Gross Point in Evanston where many Great Lakes ships sank or were stranded. That’s why a lighthouse was built there in 1874. Today it’s a National Historic Landmark and one of only two lighthouses in Illinois. The other is at the mouth of the Chicago River.