Edward Spencer

Dec 21, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Even today, Easterners view the Midwest as far better ground in which to plant corn than culture. They would almost certainly have held out little hope that Edward Spencer would make something of himself in this world. Edward was the first child born in Stephenson—the town that later became Rock Island.

Edward Spencer was born in 1835, only three years after the Black Hawk War had opened the region to American settlement. Stephenson was a brand new, a raw frontier village of a few dozen people with no schools and no churches. Hardly the place to nurture proper boys and girls, as an Easterner could tell you.

Edward Spencer seemed not to notice that the odds were against him and set out to make something of himself. In 1867 he became the ornithologist on Major Powell's first scientific expedition to the Rocky Mountains. He returned to Rock Island where he became known as a quality businessman, operating a stove and hardware store, organizing a YMCA, and serving as secretary of the Rock Island County Bible Society.

But Rock Island was especially proud of its first son for another deed. Edward has set out to become a minister as a young man. In 1860 he had gone to Northwestern University in pursuit of that goal. That is how he happened to be present at one of Lake Michigan's great disasters in 1862, the day the Lady Elgin collided with the schooner Augusta in the choppy frigid water. Three hundred people on the Lady Elgin drowned. Seventeen were saved, all of them by a young Northwestern student, Edward Spencer, who spent 24 hours swimming to the wreck and back, saving lives, before collapsing into a delirium that lasted for weeks. A long recovery ended his hopes for the ministry, though Northwestern eventually erected a plaque in his honor and awarded him a posthumous degree.

Edward Spencer became well-known for a phrase he repeated over and over during the weeks of delirium. That phrase was turned into a gospel hymn and became the subject of hundreds of sermons across the nation.

"Did I do my best?" he asked. Even an Easterner would have to answer, "You did."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.