CAPT. LAWRENCE O. LAWSON

Source: Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois with Portraits 3rd ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co., 1895), pp. 97-99

CAPT. LAWRENCE OSCAR LAWSON, who has command of the United States Life Saving Station near Gross Point, was born near Kalmar, Sweden, September 11, 1842.  He is a son of Eskel and Johanna (Shogreen) Lawson, both of whom were natives of Kalmar.  The father died when Lawrence was but fourteen years old.   He was a blacksmith by occupation, and in later life became a brewer.  His widow married Capt. Johan Nelson, a sailor, by whom she had one son, John M. Bruner, who became a resident of Chicago, and was drowned on the 19th of May, 1894, with the balance of the crew of the schooner “Myrtle,” of which he was mate.  Mrs. Nelson still lives at Kalmar, at the age of seventy-eight years.

Lawrence O. Lawson received a good common-school education.  At the age of eighteen years he went to sea with his step-father, sailing one year on the vessel commanded by the latter.  In the spring of 1861 he made a voyage to New York City, and for the next three years made his home in that city.  He had no difficulty in securing employment at that port, and embarked upon a vessel engaged in carrying supplies to Chesapeake Bay and other points for the United States army.  He was one of the crew that manned the first vessel that sailed into the port of New Orleans after its capture by the Union forces during the Civil War.   They brought a cargo of ice and loaded with sugar and syrup for the return trip.  In the spring of 1864 he went to Buffalo, and spent the next three seasons in navigating the Great Lakes.

He first reached Chicago in December, 1864, coming hither in the schooner “Tanner,” on its last trip for that season.   In 1866 he bought a piece of land at the southeast corner of what is now Jackson Park, and engaged in fishing for a livelihood.   When the park was laid out in 1868, he sold his land to the Park Commissioners, and the next spring removed to Evanston, where he resumed the occupation of fisherman, finding that business quite profitable for a few years.  He used the first pound nets in Chicago Harbor, sometimes taking as much as ten thousand pounds of fish per day for five days in succession, without emptying his nets.  While on a fishing trip to Ludington, Michigan, his nets were destroyed during a severe storm, and as the profits of the business were rapidly decreasing he did not deem it prudent to replace them.

In 1878 he became a permanent resident of Evanston, and two years later was appointed keeper of the United States Life Saving Station at that place.  This post he has very acceptably filled to the present time, his familiarity with this coast and his accurate knowledge of navigation amply fitting him for its duties.

This station was established in 1876, for the rescue of people and vessels wrecked upon this coast.  Seven men beside the Captain are employed, preference being given to the students of the Northwestern University, in recognition of the valiant services voluntarily given in saving the victims of the “Lady Elgin” disaster, a catastrophe which led to the establishment of this station.  Under Captain Lawson’s supervision the work done at this station has been so thorough and practical that he will doubtless be retained until old age unfits him for further duty.

At the time of the wreck of the steamer “Calumet,” November 28, 1889, he and his crew displayed such skill, fortitude and intrepidity as to call forth a letter of commendation from S. S. Kimball, General Superintendent of the United States Life Saving Service at Washington, District of Columbia. Secretary of the Treasury William Windom, to whose department this bureau was attached, also wrote a very complimentary letter, and presented the Captain and each of the six members of his crew with a gold medal, in recognition of the services of himself and crew.

The news of this wreck, which took place off Fort Sheridan, about one-half mile from shore, reached the station at midnight during one of the severest storms ever known upon this coast.  Proceeding by railroad to Fort Sheridan, which is situated upon the brink of a steep bluff, the crew was obliged to cut a track through the underbrush over very rough ground.  Taking advantage of a deep ravine which intersects the bluff, they lowered their boat to the water’s edge, there being no beach at this point. By wading in freezing water waist deep, they propelled the boat along the shore to a point far enough above the wreck to give them the advantage of the current of the waves, and by almost superhuman efforts succeeded in reaching the doomed vessel.  Three trips were made in this manner, and all of the eighteen men composing the crew were brought safely to shore.

On the morning of November 26, 1895, the steamer “Owen,” with schooners “Michigan” and “Elizabeth H. Nicholson” in tow, bound from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Chicago, laden with coal, was wrecked upon the beach near Glencoe during a severe storm of snow and sleet.  Owing to this storm, telegraph and telephone wires were broken down, and news of the disaster did not reach the station until 3:45 A. M., more than two hours after the wreck occurred.  Many difficulties were met with in reaching the spot.  A track had to be broken through a foot of snow for eight miles before the crew could reach the shore opposite the vessels with the surf-boat.  To add to their other discouragements, in driving through a rough ravine to reach the beach, a hole was stoven in the bottom of the boat.  This damage had to be repaired with such materials as could be readily obtained before the boat could be launched.  After overcoming all these difficulties and delays, the crew succeeded in reaching the vessels.  Six trips were made before all the people (thirty-six in number) were brought ashore in safety.   There being a heavy surf on the bar, it was almost impossible to handle the boat, and it was only through the good management of the Captain and crew that the perilous task was finally completed.  The successful accomplishment of this rescue in the face of so many delays and discouragements attracted a great deal of notice and commendation from the press and the people, not only of Chicago and vicinity, but all along the North Shore.

Eight wrecks were relieved by this crew in the season of 1889, three vessels going ashore at one time in the month of October.   One hundred and two persons were rescued that year, and three hundred and seventy-seven people have been aided during the Captain’s term of service.  Many of these, no doubt, would have been lost but for this assistance.

In 1876 Captain Lawson was married to Petrine Wold, of Chicago.  She was born at Tromso, in the extreme northern part of Norway, and came to Chicago in 1863, when but eight years old.  Her father, John Wold, who was a carpenter by trade, died there of cholera in 1866.  Mr. and Mrs. Lawson have four living children, three having died in childhood, one of whom was drowned near Gross Point. The names of the survivors are Julea Elnora, John Walton, Raymond and Ruth.

The Captain is a member of the Swedish Methodist Church of Evanston, and finds great consolation in its teachings and fellowship.   He has been connected with this denomination since 1863.  He usually supports the Republican candidates, though he is never active in partisanship.  He has come to be well known to nearly every sailor and fisherman in the vicinity of Chicago, and in addition to these numbers among his friends hundreds of the best people of other avocations.

                                -- Submitted on February 9, 2000 by Sherri Hessick ( shessick@flash.net )