With all the industry, however, came environmental damage. Eventually the debris and chemicals on the river were so thick that, in 1936, a spark from a blowtorch ignited them, and the river literally caught fire. Naturally, this incident was both embarrassing and dangerous, but several more fires broke out on the river before 1969, when the city began a major clean-up campaign, which would influence the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The pollution today is far less severe, and a large sight-seeing vessel offers cruises along the river, interpreting the industry that was and still is located along the waterway.
The creation of an outer harbor at Cleveland began with the construction of a breakwater west of the entrance to the Cuyahoga River between 1876 and 1883. A similar breakwater was built on the eastern side of the river entrance starting in 1888.
Sailing through the gap separating the two breakwaters in rough seas was akin to threading a needle with a shaky hand. Before the completion of the breakwaters, mariners had similar difficulty making their way between the two piers that lined the river entrance.
On November 11, 1884, there occurred a rescue that the U.S. Life-Saving Service called “one of the most thrilling episodes in the annals of the life-saving service at Cleveland, Ohio.” Around 9 o’clock on that stormy night, the life-saving service noticed a schooner-rigged barge, the John T. Johnson, off the east pier, attempting to make the harbor. Battling high waves, Keeper Charles C. Goodwin and his crew rowed out in a surfboat, passing the tugboat Forest City whose captain said that if they could rig a cable to the ship, he could tow it safely into the harbor.
By the time the crew reached the distressed barge, the waves were crashing over it, and the spray was freezing almost on contact. From the deck of the Johnson, Keeper Goodwin hailed Assistant Lighthouse Keeper Reed, who was nearby on the pier, and told him they were ready for the tug. However, conditions had become so rough that the tug master now refused to go out, and the exhausted life-saving crew decided to row back to their station to get the breeches buoy apparatus.
Though nearly exhausted, the lifesaving crew knew their work was far from over, and after changing into dry clothing, they hauled the breeches buoy apparatus to the scene. By midnight they had fired the Lyle gun. Surfman Eveleigh, who was perched in the barge’s rigging with the seven members of the Johnson’s crew, caught the line, and soon the breeches buoy had transported everyone from the crippled vessel to the pier. Though badly damaged, the schooner was subsequently saved along with most of its cargo.
For this night of bravery, the entire life-saving crew won the Gold Life Saving Medal. One of the doughty crew members, Frederick T. Hatch, went on to become a lighthouse keeper at Cleveland, and later earned the distinction of being the first person to receive a gold bar on his Life Saving Medal after a daring rescue on the west breakwater.
An octagonal, iron lighthouse was established on the eastern end of the west breakwater in 1884, and in 1888, after the western end of the eastern breakwater was built, a temporary mast light was established thereon on September 8, 1888. A formal tower was built on the eastern breakwater in 1897, and it started showing the light from a five-day lens-lantern on August 20 of that year.
In 1907, the Lighthouse Board, noting that spurs were being extended lakeward from the east and west breakwater, requested $33,000 for a lighthouse on the new west breakwater pierhead and $12,000 for a lighthouse on the new east breakwater pierhead. Congress appropriated the funds on May 27, 1908, and work on preparing the pierheads was begun in 1909. A cylindrical, iron tower with a height of twenty-five feet was placed atop the east breakwater pierhead, and its light, a fifth-order acetylene flashing light, was placed in commission at the opening of navigation in 1911. The east breakwater pierhead light was changed from fifth-order to fourth-order in 1912.
On June 27, 1911, the east breakwater west end light was changed from a fixed white to a flashing white light and shown from a twenty-five-foot-tall square, steel, pyramidal tower. This new tower replaced a taller tower supported by wooden legs and was equipped with a sun valve to operate its acetylene light.
Today, boats approaching Cleveland sail past the east breakwater pierhead upon which the white tower with a black lantern room has been standing since 1911. The lighthouse is now dwarfed by the high-rise buildings on shore, but its steady beam serves as a reminder of the city’s nautical roots.
In 2005, the East Breakwater Pierhead Lighthouse was temporarily removed so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could perform necessary repairs on the pier. In May 2007, the lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations. When no qualified owner was found, an online auction for the lighthouse was initiated on September 9, 2008, and it closed on December 2, with the lighthouse selling for $10,000.
An August 2009 article in Cleveland Magazine revealed the new owner of the lighthouse to be Gary Zaremba, president of New York City-based Artisan Restoration Group. This isn’t Zaremba’s first lighthouse auction win, as he purchased Lubec Channel Lighthouse in Maine in 2007 and Ohio’s Conneaut West Breakwater Lighthouse in 2008. “I want to control the navigation of America,” Zaremba jokes. “That’s my goal.” His plan for the diminutive East Breakwater Pierhead Lighthouse is to install a composting toilet and rent the light and its expansive cement pier to boaters who are looking for a unique place to enjoy the skyline, catch some sun, or perhaps have a barbecue.