On July 25th 1916, African American inventor Garrett Augustus Morgan made history when he used his invention to save the lives of city of Cleveland workers trapped underground and exposed to toxic fumes. The disaster was caused by the lack of proper safety measures at the Cleveland Water Works Department. 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. In 1856 Cleveland’s city leaders had authorized the construction of the water tunnel, to extend 300 feet into the lake, 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 24th, 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 the previous day. Work had been suspended because of the presence of highly explosive methane gas and the workers of the day shift on July 24th had left off digging after only five hours. By the night shift’s turn, it was believed that the gas had dissipated and that it was safe for the next shift to continue working. At 9:40 p.m. 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 almost overcome by gas. After the unsuccessful attempts at rescue, the authorities contacted Garrett Morgan at approximately 3:00 a.m on July 25th. They requested that he take his invention (the gas mask) to the scene of the explosion to join the rescue efforts. Morgan contacted his brother Frank Morgan and they gathered the equipment they needed.
The Morgan brothers were taken to the scene of the explosion on the tug, the George A. Wallace. They were accompanied by fire fighters and Mayor Harry L. Davis.
Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky in 1877 and left home when he was 14. 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 had 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.
When they arrived at the scene of the disaster, Morgan and his brother went down into the tunnel, wearing their safety masks and rescued several people. His photograph appeared on the front pages of the Cleveland newspapers. 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. The two white men, Thomas J. Clancy and Thomas Castleberry were recognized as “heroes” and received medals and reward of $500 by the Carnegie Commission. Mayor Harry L. Davis, who had traveled with Morgan and his brother on the tug George A. Wallace to the site of the explosion on July 25th and had witnessed Morgan’s brave rescue of several men, refused to recommend Morgan for the Carnegie Commission’s medal and award.
Even at the hearing held to investigate the cause of the disaster, neither Morgan nor his brother was called to testify. 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.” Although Morgan was treated unfairly by the city he did receive recognition and awards from other organizations including the NAACP.
In 1929, Morgan’s brother Frank was experiencing episodes of ill health and Morgan applied to the city of Cleveland for a pension of $25,000.00 in recognition of their heroism at the time of the Water Works disaster. Thomas J. Clancy, one of the white men who had received the Carnegie Commission’s “hero award” was called upon to testify before the City Council at the time. In his testimony he said, “Morgan was not an outstanding figure in the rescue as he claims to be and did not arrive until about 8 a.m., nearly 12 hours after the explosion and after I and others had made six or eight trips into the submarine chambers of death.” Clancy omitted the fact that no rescue attempt that morning was successful before the arrival of the Morgan brothers with their “gas masks.” 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.
Morgan’s invention which was used during the rescue operations at the Water Works disaster scene on July 25th, 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 wonderful 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 forty-seventh anniversary of the Waterworks Disaster. He is buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, 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.