Men at Work

THERE’S A marine population on the Cuyahoga working just below the public eye level. It’s a race of great skill and anonymity and professional pride. They’re visible only from the water or occasionally in the all-night restaurants alongshore. A few know about them, however. You can see men and women in tuxedos and evening gowns there some early mornings who have come down to view marine life - respectfully, not as a sideshow.

There are salvage men, Coast Guard men, longshoremen, warehousemen, tugmen, bridgemen, crane operators, and ship chandlers.

At work on the Cuyahoga is a precision artist whose job is to thread a needle-straight ship through a crooked river. It’s a thing of beauty to watch a Cuyahoga tug use the ship’s momentum jujitsu fashion to bend it around the U-turns.

Because of the cramped waters, a Great Lakes tug is essentially an enormous engine packed into the smallest practical hull. When it moves, the thrust is immediate. That’s essential, of course, because when the stern of an $8-or-9-million ship is swinging toward the shore, with perhaps ten feet to play with, the action needs to be fast. When the tug pushes the stern around, the bow may be heading for the opposite bank, so the tug moves forward fast to work the bow.

In the early days many independent tugs fought for the available business, racing each other to each approaching bow. In the event of a tie, a battle resulted and towing prices were cut. Falling prices prevented tug owners from maintaining their equipment.

The delays suffered by the shippers from cobbled-up tugs became so costly that they stepped in to form Great Lakes Towing Company, merging the more efficient tug operators. Great Lakes Towing covered all the Great Lakes iron ore ports. The tugs were named for states.

But today the vessels need less help from tugs because bow thrusters are being installed by several fleets. The thruster is a transverse propeller in a hollow tube in the bow of an ore boat. It pushes water left or right so the captain can swing his bow fast, giving him back a lot of control of his own vessel.

A tug veteran waiting for a call explained, “With the new variable-pitch main propulsion propellers in the rear, the captain can reverse the ship, too, without changing the turn of the engine shaft. It’s a lot quicker than the old way; gives ’em better maneuvering, too.

“If a ship’s got both of these, it stands a fair chance of getting up the river on its own.”

There was a awkward silence while he listened apparently to some echo of his own words.

“’Course we’ve got progress on the tugs, too. All diesel now. And ... why even coming aboard is different. Time was when the tug just slowed down and came close to the shore. The old crew jumped off and the new one on.

“Some missed the boat and couldn’t swim. After that we used taxicabs. At seven in the morning, three in the afternoon and 11 o’clock at night he’d take us to what bridge was nearest our boat and we’d change crews at the bridge.”

“That’s changed though now?”

“We’ve got our own dock right here. You just step aboard, like you’d go in an office in the morning and out at night. It’s a better life now ... I guess.”

The Cuyahoga Bridges

Another part of this ’round-the-clock river population are the bridge operators.

Traveling 23 miles upriver from the mouth you pass under 84 bridges to reach Akron - over three and a half bridges per mile. Twenty-one of these are concentrated in the navigable section of the river where both water and land traffic is high, so many of them are movable. The variety of action in the first 21 bridges is interesting. There are vertical-lift bridges, of course, and drawbridges, but the jackknife, side-swing and rotary bridges are worth a trip just to watch.

Every day, without fanfare, a kind of drama goes on at the movable bridges. It starts with an ore boat steaming toward the Cuyahoga. The captain checks down from about 14 miles an hour to about four at the wall, and winds her around a quarter turn at the lighthouse and breakwater. He picks up his tugs and heads upriver. About 300 yards from each bridge he blows it open with one long blast that rattles windows all the way to Public Square.

Then he listens very closely for a long and a short from the bridge. He has 132,000 tons in motion and if the bridge isn’t going to open he must put on full reverse soon enough, or carry away the bridge. If the bridge can’t open, it answers with three shorts. The captain can’t wait long for the answer.

But the bridge operator has multiple safeguard systems. Before the bridge can swing open - or tilt up or lift - traffic lights turn red and a gong rings. Warning gates with flashing lights lower, and, finally, a cable-net barrier blocks the road. Safety still depends on the bridge operator’s judgment. But if he should have a stroke or faint, the whistle signal may be safeguard enough. It’s up to the ship to leave enough time for stopping if the bridge doesn’t blow back. If the operator is incapacitated after the bridge begins to open, however, it will lift all the way open until a limit switch stops it. If the operator can’t bring it down, it stays up until help arrives.

In an emergency, road traffic can turn around and use some other crossing, but the ships have only one road.

In heavy storms, a power failure can be a threat. So two power lines run to each bridge. If both lines are out, there is an engine-generator set to operate the bridge. If this fails, a direct gasoline drive comes into play or a compressed air motor. Some Cuyahoga bridges have gears for manual operation with a hand crank. Despite the tremendous weight of the bridges, counter-balancing makes hand operation possible. A measure of the systems’ effectiveness is the fact that, outside of a railroad watchman, bridge tenders were the only men down on the river during the great storm of 1913.

Some bridges go unscathed, but during the 1913 spring flood the steamer Mack knocked the south span off the lower West Third Street bridge into the Cuyahoga. Inventive engineers replaced it with a secondhand span from Michigan. Three years later the north span was clipped by a runaway streetcar and knocked over onto the B & O tracks. Not to be stopped by lack of a bridge section, the railroad adapted a girder span, only slightly used, which it cut down to length and installed.

This bridge, lashed up wholly of secondhand and jury-rigged parts, lasted without further repair until replacement 24 years later.

When it was time for old bridges to come down, corporate executives and government officials discovered that the bridges had a place in the hearts of the people.

Several years after the Lorain-Carnegie bridge was in use, the 52-year-old Central Viaduct was closed, even to pedestrian traffic. A Reverend Mr. Stark of the Viaduct’s west end made it plain that “This community was developed as a result of that bridge and there is a definite need for it.”

The old bridges doomed by a 1944 project (with the exception of one swing bridge) were all of the Bascule or jack-knife design. Counterweights shoreward of the bridge helped pivot the span up into the air.

Small boys of all ages were sorry when they were torn down. On a hot summer day, you could sit by the river and watch those graceful Bascules by the hour. But sentiment will not widen the river, and captains needed room for bigger boats.

Crews felt differently. Wives and sweethearts of lake sailors were sorry when wreckers took away that little swing bridge near the harbor mouth. The central pier stood right in the river so that ships had to glide within 12 feet of the east bank. At this spot was a park area like a giant widow’s walk. There the women waited, to see their men pass by or to welcome them home from the inland seas.

Today, in addition to the tugmen and dock personnel at work on the river, there is a contingent of U.S. Coast Guardsmen stationed at the mouth who worry about the safety of vessels and inspect them on a regular basis.

These are the men at work ... on the Cuyahoga.