Drinking Water and a Forgotten Tragedy

An essay by Dave Dempsey

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Fort Gratiot County Park north of Port Huron bustles for a little more than three months of the year, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  Large groups occupy the gazebos, families snatch up all the picnic tables, teens play Frisbee in the sand while kids rule a small playground, and the smell of cooking meat is inescapable.  These are all fairly typical of Great Lakes shoreline parks.

What distinguishes the park is a memorial.  It commemorates not a politician or general but 22 men who died for water, Lake Huron water specifically. While honoring the dead, it expresses ambivalence inherent in the fulfillment of an institutional dream that has unintended consequences.

The project that took the lives of the 22 men on December 11, 1971 had been a dream of the Detroit water department since the late 1800s.  The water supplied by the utility’s intake in the Detroit River was adequate to meet the city’s needs, but even then, there was thought of population growth to the north.  That would require more water.  By virtue of both proximity and quality, Lake Huron was the choice for the new water source. A point five miles offshore from what is now the county park was chosen for the intake.

The memorial consists of three features:  a plaza of bricks etched with the names of the loved ones who perished in the disaster and other individuals and groups who purchased and contributed them; the statue of a symbolic project worker; and a state historical marker.  The last is especially noteworthy.  It is literally two-faced. The two sides of the marker could not be more different in tone.

One side stresses the tragic human losses and the terrible power of the explosion: “… [A] shotgun-like blast claimed the lives of twenty-two men working on a water intake tunnel beneath the bed of Lake Huron. A pocket of methane trapped within a layer of ancient Antrim shale fueled the explosion.  An exhaustive inquiry determined that drilling for a vertical ventilation shaft from the lake’s surface had released the trapped gas…The blast created a shock wave with a speed of 4,000 miles an hour and a force of 15,000 pounds per square inch. Witnesses reported seeing debris fly 200 feet in the air from the tunnel’s entrance.”

The other side emphasizes the project itself as a triumph of humankind: “In 1968, to serve the water needs of a growing population, the Detroit Metro Water Department began work on the Lake Huron Water Supply Project. This massive feat involved erecting a submerged intake crib connected to a six-mile intake tunnel beneath Lake Huron. The mechanical mole that dug the 16-foot wide tunnel bored through the bedrock beneath the lake at a rate of 150 feet a day. The project excavated more than one billion pounds of rock. The water treatment plant pumped clean water into an 82-mile system of water mains supplying Detroit and Flint. When finished in 1973, the $123 million system boasted a capacity of 400 million gallons a day.”

One has to wonder whether this mentality was partially culpable.  Pride in a monumental public works project may have promoted hubris, or contributed to denial by the managers if someone pointed out the danger.  Carelessness or ignorance may also have been to blame.  Whatever the cause, 22 people tragically lost their lives in the public service of providing clean drinking water.

Natural forces always surprise us, be they large lakes or ancient methane.


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An essay by Dave Dempsey