Lagoons, Lakes, & Ponds

Dangerous Swimming Holes

The “death hole” or “death pond” near East 72nd Street and Kingsbury Run was the site of multiple tragedies, particularly involving young African American boys who were naive and sought recreational activities such as swimming, playing with their peers, and enjoying the wonderful summer weather. Due to their exclusion from most public swimming pools, these boys turned to aquatic activities in dangerous, natural bodies of water such as unmarked lakes, streams, rivers, and ponds, where supervision and implementation of water safety measures were lacking, resulting in a high rate of drownings. Although it was only one of many unsafe swimming holes around the city, the “death hole” was probably the most notorious.

The “death pond,” approximately 100 feet deep and 150 feet in diameter, was an artifact of clay excavation for brick manufacturing by the Cleveland Builders Supply Company, which took no steps to secure the pit after an underground spring turned it into a pond. It contained water that was “almost crystal clear,” which attracted the neighborhood children despite warning signs posted by the company. A sturdy diving board at the pool’s edge was quiet evidence that no concentrated effort had ever been made to enforce the warnings displayed on the property’s hazard signs. The Cleveland Department of Public Health and Welfare warned residents about the potential dangers of swimming in natural swimming sites; natural swimming areas contained underwater risks such as “drop-offs, pot holes, weeds, topped-off trees, large rocks, and refuse litter” due to their inherent unpredictability.

Despite officials’ warnings, places like the “death hole” were enticing to African American youths, especially after the much-publicized discrimination and brutality in the second half of the 1930s at the city’s Woodland Hills Pool. Lacking access to regulated swimming pools or lakefront beaches, young African American males were often drawn to unsafe swimming holes, where some of them drowned due to the unsafe condition of the water and the surroundings in which they were swimming. In 1939, Mayor Harold H. Burton committed the city’s assistance in eradicating the “menace” of Kingsbury Run, the “Death Hole,” after receiving petitions signed by over 2,000 Clevelanders urging that the city take steps to cover the hole in order to prevent more drownings. To secure permission to use the hole for trash disposal, city officials collaborated with representatives of Cleveland Builders and Supply Company, the owners of the site where the pond was located.

Although the “death hole” near East 72nd seemed to have been filled, it did not solve the larger problem of dangerous swimming holes that offered easier alternatives to safer but unwelcoming pools. Another “Death Hole,” a seven-foot-deep water pit on Cleveland Builders Supply Co. property on E. 79th St., claimed the life of a victim in July 1940. The 10-year-old boy from 7708 Kinsman Avenue drowned in the pit, which was known to be a threat to the neighborhood because it was often filled with water during the summer, especially after rainstorms. The neighborhood’s residents petitioned the corporation to close the hole, eliminating the temptation for kids who could’ve otherwise gone into its cool but dangerous depths to escape the heat. In May 1944, a 14-year-old male victim from 3115 E. 79th St. also perished while swimming in the historical swimming hole at the bottom of E. 78th St. The drowning fatality of the kid was the first of that season in Cleveland and the second in the Kinsman Homes for “immigrant war workers” since they opened on January 18, 1943. The first victim was a two-year-old female who lived at 3195 East 79th Street.

In May 1972, the body of an 11-year-old child from 4166 East 104th Street was also recovered in an abandoned sandpit. His family protested that the pit was dangerous, unattended, and an eyesore that drew children. Children were enticed to this sandpit, which was previously off-limits to swimming. It was located between East 131st Street and Calvary Cemetery, north of Broadway. There were three sandpits there many years ago, but like the clay pit in Kinsman, they were abandoned and joined to form a large body of water similar to an artificial “mini-lake.” The water was 75 feet deep along the 131st Street side, and it was reportedly as deep as 125 feet further out. Unprotected industrial hazards and zealously guarded white privilege in many public pools proved a deadly combination for African American youths.

Eventually, the entire area southwest of East 79th and Kinsman was filled in and redeveloped as low-cost housing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The low spots that flooded along Kingsbury Run along its course to the Cuyahoga River were covered up permanently. After the 1960s, there were more safe swimming alternatives for black swimmers; yet, as public pools in minority neighborhoods tended to close nationwide, the issue of fair access to public pools returned. Minority and low-income communities have felt the effects of the government’s retreat and the privatization of leisure facilities the most.

Resources

  • “City Moves To Fill Kingsbury Run ‘Death Pond.’” Call & Post. July 27, 1939.
  • “City’s Pools Are Open To All Citizens.” Call & Post. August 06, 1949.
  • “’Death Pool’ Claims Year’s First Victim: Ten-Year-Old Youngster Drowns In Brick Company
    Pit.” Call & Post. July 13, 1940.
  • “Draining ‘Death Hole’ for Body of 15-Year-Old Boy.” Call & Post. July 20, 1939. 
  • Meyersohn, Nathaniel. “Why America Stopped Building Public Pools.” CNN. July 24, 2023. www.cnn.com/2023/07/22/business/public-pools-extreme-heat/index.html
  • “Recreation Official Urged Use of City Pools, Beaches In Move To Stop Drownings.” Call & Post. July 20, 1939. 
  • “’Swimming Hole’ Gets Youth.” Call & Post. May 27, 1944.
  • Ward, Alvin. “Community Eyesore Is Death Trap For Active Young Boy.” Call & Post. May 27, 1972. 
  • Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 
E 72nd St (Location is approximate)