When you think of diving in Lake Erie, you probably picture hazy green images of the many shipwrecks that litter these waters. Hundreds of wrecks have been discovered in the Great Lake and perhaps thousands more exist, but Halle Minshall has an entirely different suggestion for a top Lake Erie dive site.
“One of the coolest dives in the Great Lakes is the Cleveland Water Intake Crib #5. This dive is so exciting because of all the history 50 feet below the surface,” Halle says.
If you’ve ever passed over the Shoreway and looked toward the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, perhaps you’ve noticed the orange and white cylinder a few miles out. It might look like a freighter approaching this working river, but it never moves. It’s actually a water intake crib—a permanent structure that pulls freshwater from the lake and ultimately into the taps in businesses and homes in the Greater Cleveland area.
But the crib that we see three miles into the lake, called Five-Mile Crib or the Kirtland Crib (because it lies five miles away from the Kirtland Pumping Station at East 49th Street), is one of four cribs in the lake and the only one above water. A short distance from the Five-Mile Crib, invisible from shore, is a white buoy that marks the location of the underwater crib that Halle loves to dive.
“In the early 1900s, city workers built a cofferdam and created the intake crib to provide water to the residents to the city of Cleveland. All the tools and supplies they used to construct the crib were discarded in the surrounding waters and make for a walk back through history,” Halle reports. Incredibly, the above-water crib was finished in 1904 and the underwater Crib #5 was extended from a crib closer to shore and completed in 1916, but not without tragedy.
Cleveland’s downtown cribs are in 50 feet of water. Diggers, called “sand hogs,” dug another 50 feet under the bottom of the lake before making a 90-degree turn and then tunneling back to shore. The Five-Mile Crib displays a plaque in honor of the 38 men killed during the construction completed in 1904 (and does not include many more who perished from a then little-understood effect called “the bends”).
Then, during the construction of Crib #5, there was a terrible explosion when workers hit a gas pocket in 1916, resulting in the death of another 21 men. The use of a safety hood (an early prototype of the gas mask) developed by Cleveland inventor Garrett Morgan led to the rescue of two men and the recovery of several bodies. In 1991, the treatment plant connecting to Crib #5 was renamed the Garrett A. Morgan Water Treatment Plant in his honor.
At the dive site, divers encounter bulwarks rising 20 feet from the bottom, supporting the outside rim of the crater-like intake crib. The 20-foot opening is large enough that divers aren’t sucked into the grated entrance, and the moving water leads to unusual clarity for a Lake Erie dive. “The construction tools used to build this water intake crib over 100 years ago are easily accessible and visible and yet the divers who visit this site leave them unmolested, further preserving a piece of our history,” Halle says. The elevation of the intake was carefully considered, avoiding ice and boat traffic at the surface, as well as sludge and bacteria that gather at the bottom of the lake.
“This is one of my favorite dives I have ever done in Lake Erie, the history and culture tied together with the modern-day need for drinking water are fascinating,” says Halle, continuing, “The technology and precision needed to make a tunnel like this, miles out into the lake and a connecting horizontal tunnel under the lakebed, fascinates me.”
The four Cleveland cribs provide clean freshwater to 1.4 million customers in the Greater Cleveland area. “I don’t think very many Clevelanders consider where our water comes from or how it gets from the lake to your faucet. We are so lucky to be geographically situated with such bountiful natural resources,” Halle says.
Cleveland Water Intake Crib is the ninth in our weekly series of the Aquarium dive team’s favorite dive locations. Stay tuned for the final destination and suggest somewhere new we might want to explore.
- Ray D.