Long before John Patton, one of the victims in the 1916 waterworks tunnel disaster, had ever thought about coming to Cleveland, the city had been digging water intake tunnels under Lake Erie. In the post-Civil War era, pollution of the Cuyahoga River and the lake into which it flowed had increased so rapidly as a result of an expanding industrial sector and urban population that, by the late 1860s, residents were already complaining of tainted water from the lake, which had been the city's primary source for drinking water since 1856, the year construction of the Kentucky Street Reservoir project had been completed. Responding to these complaints, the city, in 1874, constructed its first waterworks tunnel. Five-feet in diameter and located 40 feet below the lake bed, it extended from the shore near the old River Bed to a water intake crib in the lake a little over a mile away where, presumably, the water was untainted.
By the mid-1890s, however, this tunnel, and a second, larger one later built to the same crib, became inadequate, as pollution of the river and lake had worsened considerably. Therefore, in 1898, the city undertook to construct a new tunnel leading to a new water intake crib three miles out in the lake. (Still visible from Cleveland's shoreline today, this crib eventually became known as the 5-mile crib, because, while located three miles from the shore, its tunnel stretches a distance of five miles to the east side Kirtland pumping station.) The project was completed in 1904, but by 1910, with questions raised regarding the new tunnel's integrity and a rising typhoid fever rate in the city, plans were soon made to construct a fourth tunnel--larger in diameter and extending further out into the lake than any of the previous ones. The new tunnel would be constructed from the old west side crib--abandoned when construction of the new tunnel to the Kirtland station had been completed, to a new water intake crib nearly four miles out into the lake.
Construction of this newest lake tunnel began in March 1914. It was initially lauded for its safety record, especially when compared to that of the last tunnel's construction, which had taken the lives of a total of 33 workers in four separate accidents occurring between 1898-1901. But the praise quickly ended on July 25, 1916, when Clevelanders woke up to learn that there had been a terrible accident the night before in the tunnel. In the evening hours of July 24, Harry Vokes, a 27-year old Case Institute graduate, who was serving as acting foreman, led a work crew of eight men, including John Patton, down into the tunnel from the new crib known as Crib No. 5. Shortly thereafter, when natural gas vented up from the lake bed and somehow ignited, an explosion occurred, which buried Vokes and his entire work crew under hundreds of feet of mud and tunnel debris.
As often happens in the midst of tragedy, a number of men, including African American Garrett Morgan, inventor of a new type of gas mask, and later of other patented products including the first 3-position traffic signal light, exhibited extreme courage and bravery in descending into the tunnel to search for survivors that night and the following morning. The first two rescue attempts led by Crib superintendent John Johnston and Construction superintendent Gus Van Duzen rescued none of the work crew and resulted only in the deaths of ten of the rescuers who were overcome by the gas in the tunnel. Several additional efforts in the early morning hours of September 25 by Van Duzen's stepson Tom Clancy resulted in the successful rescue of one or two members of the second rescue team lying unconscious on the tunnel floor, but it was not until Morgan, and his brother Frank, arrived with their gas masks that they, tunnel workers, firefighters and others at Crib No. 5, were able to descend into the tunnel relatively safely and bring out the remaining surviving rescuers, including Van Duzen, as well as the bodies of the rescuers who had not survived.
Once all of the rescuers, alive or dead, were removed from the tunnel, sandhogs began to dig through the mud, and sometimes patiently wait for gas in the tunnel to dissipate, in a renewed effort to reach and retrieve the bodies of the work crew. As this was slowly progressing, Cleveland City Hall launched a probe to determine who was at fault for this disaster. Fingers were initially pointed at Van Duzen, Johnston and Vokes, as well as at a city chemist who had failed to timely test an air sample from the tunnel. But, when witnesses began to fault city officials for safety shortcomings at Crib No. 5, including lack of resuscitation equipment, a telephone, and an attending physician, Mayor Harry L. Davis quickly ended the probe, concluding that no one was at fault and that "every man did what he thought best." Meanwhile, digging for the work crew continued. By August 21, all nine bodies were recovered, including that of John Patton. His body was identified by his brother-in-law James Masterson. During the recovery effort, another sandhog, Italian immigrant Luigi Bucciarelli, fell from Crib No. 5 into the lake and drowned, becoming the twentieth victim of the tragedy.
Work soon resumed on construction of the tunnel, which was finally completed in 1918. Afterwards, the two west side cribs were submerged under Lake Erie's waters, leaving only the 5-Mile Crib still visible to Clevelanders today. The west side tunnel was destined to be the last waterworks tunnel ever constructed under the lake bed. When the city initiated its next water intake project in 1948, the project was constructed by digging a trench in the lake bed from a crane mounted on a barge, and then laying prefabricated pipe into the trench. Certainly, this was a better and safer method of constructing a water intake system in Lake Erie, but it unfortunately was developed three decades too late for Irish immigrant John Patton and the other 19 men who died with him four miles out in Lake Erie.