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Cuyahoga River advocates hope to restore Putzfrau, boat that cleaned up the river after 1969 fire

The Putzfrau
Posted at 5:51 PM, May 15, 2019

CLEVELAND — A boat that helped clean up the polluted Cuyahoga River after its 1969 fire is now getting ready for a new mission: bringing the history of the river to younger generations.

Putzfrau, which means “cleaning lady” in German, was designed by a local family, the Samsels, and was one of the first to help remove oil and debris from the river, using vacuum tubes to suck up hazardous liquids into tanks below deck and a crane to scoop up litter.

“Imagine having to walk into the Rocket Mortgage [FieldHouse] and clean the whole place with a house vacuum,” said Drew Ferguson, president of PHASTAR Corporation. “And that’s essentially the task these guys had.”

According to Ferguson, the Samsel family members and their business, Samsel Supply, were “one of the first local businesses to become involved in what became the Clean Water Act and the environmental movement in the United States.”

PHASTAR Corporation and West Creek Conservancy, both northeast Ohio nonprofits, hope to bring the dry-docked Putzfrau back to life and use her to tell the story of the Crooked River.

“To the layperson, you look at it and it’s kind of a rundown, old steel vessel,” Ferguson said. “But when you actually bring in folks who are experts and you bring in naval architects, you bring in surveyors, and you look at the ship thoroughly, it’s got a solid backbone and it still has a solid soul.”

The Putzfrau is a bit dusty and needs a fresh coat of paint, but the people behind her revival hope she can take on a new mission.

“The engines start,” said Peter Bode, the Central Lake Erie Basin project manager at West Creek Conservancy. “The hull is in good shape, deck is in good shape. It’s just going to take a little bit of money to tidy it up.”

The organizations are trying to raise $50,000 to restore the Putzfrau and create a floating museum.

“People see the Cuyahoga River, they see Cleveland, they see the burning river,” Bode said. “And it’s a tired narrative. It’s something that really needs to be re-looked at and reformatted a bit.”

This year marks 50 years since the river caught fire, and the Putzfrau will be part of the Xtinguish Celebration, a festival series from June 19 through 22 to commemorate the anniversary.

“The idea is to create an immersive experience to really highlight the culture of the Cuyahoga River Watershed as a whole,” Bode said. “Bring in the entire 100 miles of the Cuyahoga River, kind of in solidarity around our shared waterway.”

The Putzfrau will be part of the last leg of Torchfest, the journey along the river from Headwaters Park in the Geauga Park District all the way to Rivergate Park on Irishtown Bend in Cleveland.

“It’s really important to really tell this story, that this region isn’t only bulkheaded, industrial river,” Bode said. “It’s a really long, beautiful river.”

The festival will include a Native American “water honoring,” as well as a Juneteenth celebration, Bode said. It will also involve public art and torches passed along the length of the river, ending on June 22 with the final torchbearer, Frank Samsel, who built the Putzfrau.

“He’s been carrying this torch for the last 50 years and he’s going to be passing it off to the next generation,” Bode said.

In addition to creating a floating museum, PHASTAR hopes to develop a curriculum to teach students at its partner school, Davis Aerospace & Maritime High School, about the history of the Cuyahoga River.

“It’s a good project to restore it, and then to have a place to tell the story and let people climb on, feel what it’s like to stand on the ship, stand over the very waters that were once so polluted and understand the history,” Ferguson said. “We would need to outfit the boat with some audio visual, playing some of the videos that are currently out there and then generating some new stories, not only about the cleanup of the river, but the Samsel family and the businesses that have grown out of Lake Erie and Cuyahoga River in a new, cleaner state.”

Ferguson said students at Davis would help restore the boat, “working on the engines, fixing up the electronics, physically painting the boat and then being able to actually go on it and help operate the boat.”

The Putzfrau’s restoration, in some ways, mirrors the story of the Cuyahoga River and of northeast Ohio.

“Much as we have brought the Cuyahoga River back to life and much as Cleveland’s coming back to life, this is kind of a sample of what’s going on in the town,” Ferguson said. “We are going to take this boat that has been sitting here for decades, and we’re going to bring it back to life. It’s going to look pretty. It’s going to run well.”