At approximately 3:00 a.m. on July 25, 1916, African-American inventor, Garrett Augustus Morgan, made history when he used one of his inventions (gas mask) to save the lives of City of Cleveland workers trapped underground and exposed to toxic fumes. The disaster occurred because the Cleveland Water Works Department failed to observe safe working conditions for their employees.
At the time, an existing tunnel which had been built in 1856 in Lake Erie to deal with the city’s contaminated water supply, needed to be expanded. Cleveland’s city leaders had authorized the construction of the water tunnel to extend 300 feet into the lake where water would be pumped through the tunnel to a reservoir to supply safe drinking water. In 1914, a decision was made to extend the 1856 tunnel an additional 20,000 feet into the lake.
On the evening of July 24, 1916, night shift workers entered the work elevator which would carry them to a 10-foot wide pipe 120 feet below the surface of the lake. There had been problems with the air quality in the shaft on July 23 and work had been suspended because of the presence of highly explosive methane gas. Workers of the day shift on July 24 had stopped digging after only five hours because of the unsafe conditions. By the time the night shift went to work on July 24 it was believed that the gas had dissipated and that it was safe for them to continue working.
At 9:40 p.m. on July 24 there was an explosion and smoke billowed out of the tunnel. A rescue party was organized but they were overcome by gas fumes and within minutes they were unconscious. The next group of would be rescuers wrapped their heads in wet towels but were useless and had to leave because they were almost overcome by gas. After these unsuccessful rescue attempts the authorities contacted Garrett Morgan and requested that he take his invention (gas mask) to the scene of the explosion to rescue the workers and the would be rescuers. Morgan contacted his brother Frank and they gathered the equipment they needed.
Garrett and Frank Morgan were taken to the scene of the explosion on the tug “George A. Wallace”. They were accompanied by fire fighters and the city’s mayor, Harry L. Davis. When they arrived at the scene of the disaster, Morgan and his brother went down the dark contaminated tunnel (more than 200 feet) wearing their safety masks and made several trips rescuing more than 20 people and retrieving the bodies of those who had perished in the explosion.
In spite of his heroic efforts which saved the lives of many, he was identified by name in only one newspaper article: “G. A. Morgan was in charge of a party from the National Safety Device Co., 5204 Harlem Avenue, S.E.” The other newspapers named two White men as the heroes of the rescue effort. Thomas J. Clancy and Thomas Castleberry were recognized as “heroes” and received medals and $500 in reward by the Carnegie Commission. Mayor Davis, who had traveled with Morgan and his brother on the tug “George A. Wallace” to the site of the explosion and had witnessed the Morgans’ brave rescue of several men, refused to recommend Morgan for the Carnegie Commission’s medal and award.
In October, 1917, Morgan wrote a letter to Mayor Davis demanding an explanation. The letter reads in part: “I am interested in knowing why it was that you and your Director of Law, Mr. Fitzgerald, would not permit me to testify at the investigation of the disaster; when you knew and was an eyewitness to the fact that I positively lead the first successful rescue party that entered the tunnel and came out alive, bringing with me dead and alive bodies, among them Supt. Van Dusen. Why was it you remained silent and allowed awards [to be given] to men who either followed me into the tunnel, or if they went in at all, went in after my return in your presence with dead and alive bodies, when I returned you congratulated me and told me you would see that I was treated fairly and would be commended for my bravery. You also knew that the police, firemen and lifesavers had worked nearly all night without success and that they looked upon my effort as a last hope of saving persons imprisoned in the tunnel. The treatment accorded me in the particulars set out above is much as to make me and the members of my race to feel that you did not give a colored man a square deal.”
In spite of all the eyewitnesses to the part that the Morgan brothers played during the Waterworks disaster, their role was negated because of racism and White supremacy. Although Morgan was treated unfairly by the city he did receive recognition and awards from other organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.)
Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky on March 4, 1877 the 7th of 11 children of Sydney and Elizabeth (Reed) Morgan, a couple who had been enslaved until the American Emancipation proclamation in 1865. Morgan began his working life when he left his home in Kentucky as a teenager and moved to Ohio. Although he only had a sixth grade education, he was determined to improve his life through education. He taught himself to repair sewing machines and worked with a number of companies before opening his own business specializing in sewing machine sales and repair in 1907. He used some of the money he made to hire a tutor to improve his education.
In 1913, Morgan applied for a patent of a “gas safety hood”. When the patent was granted in 1914, he established the National Safety Device Company. By 1915, Morgan had been awarded a government contract to supply safety hoods to U.S. naval vessels.
Morgan’s invention, which was used during the rescue operations at the Water Works disaster scene on July 25, 1916, was also used by American military during the First World War and is the prototype of the gas masks used by firefighters today.
Morgan also invented the first stoplight to use a caution signal between red and green lights. In 1923, he sold his patent to the General Electric Company for $40,000. A few months later, several traffic lights based on Morgan’s invention were installed along Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland. None of the newspaper articles written about this amazing invention being used to save lives even mentioned Morgan. In 1923, a refined model of his gas mask won a gold medal at the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety and another gold medal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Morgan died on July 27, 1963, just a few days after the 47th anniversary of the Waterworks Disaster. He is buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio and his papers are part of the collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society.
The passage of time has seen the recognition of the heroism and contributions of this great African-American inventor including the Garrett Morgan Cleveland School of Science Academy. The secondary school which is in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District “offers a curriculum of challenging courses with a strong emphasis in math and science” and students can earn an Associate’s Degree in Applied Technology.