A novel based on a true tale of heroism and invention in the tunnels beneath Lake Erie in 1916
This original graphic novel imagines the lives of blue-collar workers involved in the real-life Lake Erie tunnel disaster of 1916 in Cleveland. Author Scott MacGregor and illustrator Gary Dumm tell the intersecting stories of a brilliant African American inventor, Ben Beltran (based on the real-life Garrett Morgan, Sr.), desperate immigrants tunneling beneath Lake Erie, and corrupt overseers who risk countless lives for profit. As historical fiction, Fire on the Water sheds light not only on one of America’s earliest man-made ecological disasters but also on racism and the economic disparity between classes in the Midwest at the turn of the century.
Little-known passages in the history of Cleveland in the 1900s inspire this earnest fictionalized tale of life and death among the "sandhogs" immigrant workers who dig tunnels to bring clean water to the city. The account is rife with relevant themes ecological disaster (typhus outbreaks are common due to Lake Erie's fetid waters), anti-immigration sentiments, and racism among them. Some characters are based on real life figures, including Benjamin Beltran, inspired by inventor Garrett Morgan whose fire-fighting creation the "smoke helmet" is laughed at because he's African-American. Another thread follows Rodger Clarke, the Irish foreman on Crib #5, one of the tunneling projects made potentially fatal by subterranean gas pockets near the work site. Their paths intertwine along with various others, including the corrupt mayor and project supervisors, and struggling sandhogs in a conflagration known as "1916 Waterworks Disaster" that sees Beltran's invention put to dramatic use. MacGregor and artist Dumm (American Splendor) are both native Clevelanders, bringing shared passion for their local history. But the effort is somewhat undermined by Dumm's occasionally plodding art style, with stiff and overly similar character art, and by MacGregor's overreliance on patois and accents. Well-meaning if not sparkling in execution, this nonetheless presents a plucky tale of survival and heroism.