The Site of Cleveland’s First Water Works
The Garrett A. Morgan Water Treatment Plant is the oldest of Cleveland Water’s four treatment plants. Cleveland’s first municipal waterworks was opened on the same site on September 24, 1856.
Prior to then, residents’ water came from surface water and spring wells. As the city grew, residents petitioned the City Council for municipal water service. And in 1853, the City of Cleveland hired Theodore Scowden, a waterworks engineer from Cincinnati, to plan and supervise the project.
The system that Scowden designed consisted of an intake pipe located 300 feet from the shore of Lake Erie that fed water into a brick aqueduct. The aqueduct conveyed the lake water to a steam-powered pumping station. The water was then pumped into a nearby 6 million-gallon reservoir and distributed by gravity throughout the city via 13 miles of pipe. While the delivery method was improved, the water remained unfiltered and untreated.
Garrett A. Morgan’s Heroic Tunnel Rescue
As Cleveland’s population continued to grow, the demand for water increased. But a booming population and economy adversely affected water quality. The Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie shoreline became polluted, increasing rates of cholera and typhoid.
The city needed to find a way to improve the quality of water and distribute it to a larger area.
So in 1914, construction began on an intake tunnel under Lake Erie that would be larger and extended farther offshore than any others that existed at the time, allowing for fresher, cleaner water to be delivered to Clevelanders. The tunnel would supply water to the city’s new Division Avenue Pumping and Filtration Plant.
On the evening of July 24, 1916, a powerful gas explosion occurred at the tunnel entrance, trapping the workmen inside. Volunteers immediately began searching for survivors but many succumbed to the gas in the tunnel and died, preventing further rescue attempts.
A policeman persuaded Cleveland authorities to contact Garrett A. Morgan, a local African-American inventor and entrepreneur. The officer had seen Morgan demonstrate a hood-like smoke protection device he invented for firefighters.
Early the following morning, Morgan and his brother Frank arrived with several of his smoke hoods. The Morgan brothers and two volunteers made four trips down into the tunnel, rescuing several men and recovering a number of bodies before officials stopped further rescue and recovery efforts. Nineteen men ultimately perished, and at least nine others were injured, but Morgan’s heroism would become a major part of his legacy.
The Division Avenue Plant was put into service in 1918, pumping filtered water through water mains for the first time. An engineering marvel of its time, the one-story, brick building was built with two wings, each housing 18 filters, administrative offices and testing laboratories.
In 1991, the Division Avenue Station was renamed to honor Garrett A. Morgan, in recognition of his role in rescuing men from the intake tunnel disaster.
From 2001 to 2012, $177.2 million was spent on renovations to the Morgan Water Treatment Plant as part of Cleveland Water’s Plant Enhancement Program. The improvements included a new finished water pump station, renovated filters, a new in-line rapid mix, a renovated Filter and Administration building, a renovated raw water pump station, installation of a plant-wide automation system, a new 15 million gallon reservoir, transition to a safer chlorine feed system, and the demolition of the old finished water pump building.
In 2016, Cleveland Water hosted a ceremony at the Morgan Treatment Plant to recognize the 100th anniversary of the tunnel disaster and subsequent rescue effort.
The event honored those who lost their lives and recognized the heroic efforts of Morgan and other volunteers who participated in the rescue effort. City of Cleveland officials joined descendants of the men who died during the disaster and rescue workers, many of whom met for the first time.
Speakers included Sandra Morgan, the granddaughter of the African-American inventor, Mayor Frank Jackson, and Director of Public Utilities Robert Davis.
Today, the Garrett A. Morgan Water Treatment Plant pumps an average of 60 million gallons of water a day to the residents and businesses located downtown and in the western and southern suburbs of Cleveland and stands as a testament to the history and progress of water treatment in Cleveland.