December Marks 50th Anniversary of Drinking Water Tunnel Disaster


Fifty years ago, on December 11, 1971, 22 workers died in a tragic explosion while completing a tunnel designed to bring Lake Huron drinking water to the Detroit metropolitan area. The anniversary of the disaster was marked by a ceremony earlier this month.

“We are honoring the 22 men who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our clean drinking water and they need to be remembered,” said Joel Archibald, business manager for a labor union that organized the ceremony.

The project 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 was chosen for the intake.

A memorial to the dead in Fort Gratiot County Park, close to the junction of the pipeline with land, 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 22 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.”

The disaster, and the memorial, are a reminder that the expansion of the Detroit drinking water system came at a big cost.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.