Filed Under Disasters

The 1916 Waterworks Tunnel Disaster

Twenty Clevelanders Die Four Miles Out in Lake Erie

This wasn't John Patton's first trip to America. The Irish immigrant, who was born and raised in the village of Derreens on Achill Island in County Mayo, had come to America in 1907, staying on the west side of Cleveland with his sister Mary and her husband. But for whatever the reason--possibly to tend to a wife who was ill at home, he soon returned to Ireland. There, he resumed farming, helped to raise the couple's five children, and perhaps held hope that he could make a life for himself and his family there. By 1914, however, those hopes had likely evaporated. His wife had died. He had remarried. And now he was making plans for a second voyage to America and to Cleveland, this time to stay with his younger sister Celia. She was engaged to be married to James Masterson, a work crew foreman for a massive waterworks tunnel project just underway in Cleveland. It wouldn't be a stretch to believe that it was the promise of a job on this project which prompted Patton's second trip to America. Regrettably, it was a job that two years later would cost him his life.

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, which was 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 three-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.


Rescuers Gasping for Air This drawing, which appeared on the editorial page of the July 26, 1916 edition of the Cleveland Leader, graphically depicts the fate of rescuers who went down into the west side waterworks tunnel in the early hours of July 25 in a desperate attempt to save the lives of a nine-man work crew, trapped in the tunnel when a gas explosion buried them under debris and lake mud. Ten rescuers, as well as the entire work crew, perished. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Proposed New West Side Waterworks Tunnel This map shows the location of Cleveland's waterworks tunnels and cribs in Lake Erie in 1911, as well as the proposed new west side waterworks tunnel, which was constructed between 1914-1918. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Administration Branch, Water Projects File
Tunneling from Crib to Crib This diagram, and attending article, which appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on July 30, 1916, show the method of construction employed for the new west side waterworks tunnel, which was begun in 1914 and was almost complete when disaster struck on July 24, 1916. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Headline News The Cleveland Press' front page on July 25, 1916. Within hours of learning of the disaster, which killed a work crew of nine and ten rescuers, Cleveland's media was already focusing on assigning blame. Creator: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Confusion Reigns Initial information concerning the July 24, 1916 explosion in the west side waterworks tunnel was, at best, incomplete, and sometimes just wrong. On July 25, the Cleveland News printed these photographs of six men it stated were killed in the tunnel. Only four of them—Clarke, Welsh, Turnbull, and Lahnstein—actually died in the explosion and/or subsequent rescue attempts. Peter McKenna was a rescuer who, while injured, survived going down into tunnel. Martin McFadden, also a rescuer, survived his experience apparently without any injury. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Pulmotors These were early twentieth century resuscitating devices which forced oxygen into a patient's lungs. Here, as seen in a photograph which appeared in the Cleveland Press on July 25, 1916, a doctor uses a pulmotor, in an attempt to revive one of the rescuers overcome by gas in the west side waterworks tunnel. It is unknown whether the patient survived the use of this medical device which was later discredited and is no longer used. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Demonstrating his Gas Mask In this 1916 photograph, Garrett Morgan, inventor and one of the heroes of the west side waterworks tunnel explosion, demonstrates how to wear his patented gas mask. He used this mask on July 25, 1916, to rescue several men overcome by gas in the aftermath of the west side waterworks tunnel explosion. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Morgan Saving a Rescuer This photograph, which first appeared in the Cleveland News on July 25, 1916, shows Garrett Morgan helping one of the rescuers that he rescued from the west side waterworks tunnel. This was one of only a few articles or photographs appearing in Cleveland newspapers following the tunnel disaster that gave any credit to Morgan, an African American, for his inventiveness and bravery on July 25. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Three Who Survived Shown (from left to right) in the immediate aftermath of their rescue from the gas-filled west side waterworks tunnel on July 25, 1916, are Michael Gallagher, Lawrence Dunn, and Mike Keogh. They were among the dozen or so workers who participated in the second rescue attempt into the tunnel led by Construction Superintendent Gus Van Duzen. Because of confusion and inconsistent reports in the Cleveland news media, it is unclear exactly who rescued them from the tunnel. It was likely either Van Duzen's stepson Tom Clancy and his friend James Keating, Firefighters Richard Kistemaker and Dan Lavelle, or Garrett Morgan. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
One Rescuer Who Didn't Survive As tunnel workers look on, the unidentified body of one of the rescuers is carried from Crib No. 5 onto the Tugboat Gillmore in the early morning hours of July 25, 1916, for transport to the shore, and then to a morgue. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Hero or Goat Shown with his wife Martha in this photograph which appeared in the July 27, 1916 Cleveland Leader, Gus Van Duzen was alternately called either a hero or the person responsible for the tunnel explosion on July 24. Van Duzen was undoubtedly a brave, but stubborn, man. He had been a hero in the 1901 fire at Temporary Crib No. 2, which took the lives of six tunnel workers. And he bravely went down into the west side waterworks tunnel in the early morning hours of July 25, 1916, in a failed effort to save either the work crew trapped by the explosion, or the first group of rescuers who attempted to save the work crew. He was cleared of responsibility for the explosion in Mayor Davis' abbreviated probe of the disaster, but later was fired by the Water Department. He continued to make Cleveland newsprint for the rest of his life. In 1941, when he was 82-years old, he tried to volunteer for submarine duty three days after Pearl Harbor. In 1950, at age 91, he resisted efforts by the city to remove him from a rundown apartment at 2532 Lorain Avenue, described in the papers as a "fire trap," and place him in a west side sanitarium. He died several months later. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection
Four White Rescuers Awarded Carnegie Medals Tunnel workers Thomas Clancy, James Keating, William Dolan, and James McGrath, all of whom exhibited bravery and courage in their efforts on July 25, 1916 to rescue the work crew trapped by the tunnel explosion and other rescuers, were awarded medals by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission on January 24, 1917. The award, unfortunately, was tainted by the refusal of the City of Cleveland to support the medal nomination of Garrett Morgan, an African American inventor, for his heroism in the tunnel disaster. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Newspaper Collection


Lake Erie, Cleveland, OH


Jim Dubelko, “The 1916 Waterworks Tunnel Disaster,” Cleveland Historical, accessed December 6, 2023,