Walking on Cleveland water crib that pumps millions of gallons to city and suburbs

Miles offshore, Cleveland water crib is lifeblood

CLEVELAND - To those who are not aware, it is often mistaken for a a ship anchored miles off the shoreline of Cleveland. It is a strange sight because it never moves; not even an inch.

Year after year, decade after decade, it has glistened in the sun, stood silently in the heavy weather. It is not a ship, but is the beginning point where Lake Erie water begins its long flow into homes and businesses throughout northeast Ohio.

The water intake plant, commonly referred to as the water crib, is several miles off the shoreline of downtown Cleveland and five miles from the Kirtland Pump Plant on the city's South Marginal Road, which is the first stop for water that comes by a tunnel mined underneath the floor of the lake.

I had a chance to visit the crib. Cleveland Interim Water Commissioner Alex Margevicius, a crew of his machinists, my television photographer Paul Brest and I hopped on a city boat and motored the five miles from the boat dock near the division's Kirtland Pump Plant. After a 35-minute ride on Lake Erie, we tied up to the crib itself. You cannot miss the big orange steel barrel-like structure surrounding a building in the middle of Lake Erie.

It took some steady footing to step off the bouncing boat to a ladder water division machinists brought along to climb to the deck of the crib.

"Hold on carefully," advised machinist Rene Ortiz. "Just take your time one step at a time," he said confidently. 

As each of us reached the deck, another machinist, Adam Robinson, the first to arrive, gave that instruction. "Swing your leg over to the top and I'll pull you on."

From the crib, the view of the Cleveland skyline miles away is breathtaking. Lake Erie is 241 miles long and about 60 miles wide in some points. That is a lot of water in which the crib is situated. Daily, about 165 million gallons of water will leave the lake through the crib on its way to the pump station, where the water will begin being treated before it flows to other water commission facilities.

Through the building in the middle of the crib is where Lake Erie water begins its five-mile flow through the tunnel, 50 feet below the floor of the lake, to Kirtland.

"This is the actual intake where lake water comes in through underwater parts through the sides of the crib and into this big holding well here," said Margevicius, pointing to an open area about the size of a basketball court. At its bottom is the lake. In the middle of the opening is a shaft which takes water to the tunnel below.

It is eerily quiet except for haunting moan of a foghorn warning away ship's captains. There are no visible moving parts or even the sound sloshing water. Lake Erie is always in the tunnel. When the tunnel was constructed between 1896 and 1903, there were tragedies. During the course of the work, 38 men were killed from explosions, suffocations and fires. During the course of later work in 1916, while working in a 10-foot-wide tunnel at another water division plant, workers hit a pocket of natural gas. They were trapped and their lives hung in the balance.

Someone called Garrett Morgan, who recently developed  a new type of gas mask. Morgan, a Cleveland resident, was already well known for his invention of the world's first traffic light. Morgan arrived on the scene quickly, donned his gas mask and entered the tunnel and saved the lives of five workers involved in a tunnel from another crib, which is not seen because it is below the surface of Lake Erie.

Decades later, in tribute Cleveland named on of its treatment plants in Morgan's honor. The above-water crib, and Cleveland's three others that are submerged in Lake Erie, have played major roles in the development of not only Cleveland, but the entire region. Margevicius calls the entire water system of four water cribs and their tunnels to four pump stations as one of the most significant infrastructures in Cleveland that helped propel the city's development for more than 100 years.

Surveying the broad-chested Lake Erie from the roof of the four-story building in the waters of Lake Erie, miles off the Cleveland shoreline, Margevicius is very philosophical about the role the lake plays in northern Ohio. He said the United States and Canada, which share Lake Erie, have agreed that lake water will not be sent to other parts of the two countries where water is in short supply.

"This is a valuable resource we have here," said the water commissioner, his eyes sweeping in all directions as we stood on the deck of the crib. Above our heads, were instruments measuring the velocity of the wind. There are beacons that flash during night hours, warning ships captains of presence of the crib. There is also a constantly-sounding foghorn.

Through the years, there have been some incidents where boats have gotten too close and hit the crib. The bright orange steel barrel-like doughnut around the building serves as a protection. Through most of the life of the crib, there have been workers who have stayed on the facility, monitoring operations. However, in recent decades, automation has replaced them.

On the roof of the city's only above-water crib is an array of solar panels that provide electricity for batteries, which power the few moving parts on the facility. Machinists say they need to visit the crib every few weeks to maintain it. Seagulls have long known the crib. They maintain a constant squawking as they fly from the Cleveland shoreline to the water division's intake. While we are on the deck, the birds are noticeably absent. The machinists remark they will return as soon as we leave.

After an hour of photographing the facility for my television segment, "My Ohio with Leon Bibb," WEWS NewsChannel5 photographer Paul Brest and I shinny down the side of the steel crib, and reach for the small boat that still bounces in the lake, tied to hooks on the crib. The last one in the boat is a machinist, who has locked all the doors to the inner workings of the crib. Our specially-designed ladder to fit the deck of the crib is pulled away and stored in the boat.

The haunting sound of the foghorn bellows across the water. At night, the battery-operated lights on the crib will blink. They, too, play another role. The crib is a marker for airline pilots who are lining up their airplanes for landing at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.  Though they do not need the crib to get home, pilots who are based in Cleveland have told Margevicius the facility off the shoreline of Cleveland is a welcome sight when coming home.

As the motors of the boat roar to life and as we head back toward the Cleveland shoreline, the seagulls promptly return. The crib is their temporary roost again. However, beyond its locked steel doors and deep in the bowels of the Cleveland water intake, the lake is still flowing. Through that tunnel, where workers lost their lives constructing it, the water flows -- 165 million of gallons are bound for the pump plant ashore. After the water is filtered and treated, it will be pumped further to other water plants where, with water from three other submerged cribs, eventually it will reach 1.5 million customers in Cleveland and 72 other communities, some of them as far away as 25 miles from the crib, where the water began its long trek.

The water is a lifeblood for the area. Businesses and industries will use it in their operations. Individuals will bath in it, cook with it, water their lawns and drink it. Lake Erie will sustain life in this part of the country.

Looking back over his shoulder at the water crib, which grows smaller to our eyes as the city's skyline looms larger, Margevicius looks into the future.

"It is good for another 100 years," he said easily and with confidence. Like a ship anchored off the shore, the Cleveland water intake is still in the water, anchored to the floor of the lake.

The water lapped against the hull of our boat as we left a wake in the greatest natural resource of northern Ohio behind us. Until we got out of range, we could still hear the squawk of the seagulls in the distance as the Cleveland water intake -- the crib -- became a dot on the horizon.


Print this article Back to Top