The Vigilant: Cleveland Police’s First Boat

Beginning in the early 1900s, Chief of Police Frederick Kohler recommended to the Cleveland City Council that a naphtha patrol boat be purchased to safeguard the river and lake fronts.  In his 1910 Annual Report he stated “The immediate procuring of a patrol boat should also receive attention.  You doubtlessly are well aware of the large improvements in progress along our lake and river fronts.  And the many others contemplated for the near future, all pointing to the fact that in the next decade the protecting of our water front property, vessels, warehouses, freight sheds, their contents, passenger landings, and many other interests there located will become a serious problem.  This city should have a motor patrol boat of sufficient power, size, and with up-to-date equipment, to properly protect this water front, as industrial and shipping interests, property, vessel and boat owners, are clamoring for proper recognition of their rights for protection, and our force will soon be practically unable to cope successfully with the many depredations which will be committed there.  No doubt a patrol boat such as described above, would assist us greatly in our work upon the water fronts, both lake and river.”

Frederick Kohler

There was a little support from some in City Council.  In October of 1910, Councilman Arnold suggested that the Harbor Master’s old launch be turned over to the police and be completely overhauled for police service.  He continued to fight for a police boat suggesting in January of 1912 that a boat could be purchased for as little as $1,000.   

The first vessel on Lake Erie to enforce any laws was the Leuella, a 40 horsepower, twin screw motorboat owned by Casper W. Hiat Jr.  It was leased by Thomas M. Brown, Deputy Federal Customs Officer, who patrolled Lake Erie seizing vessels who were in violation of federal regulations.  It was the first police boat of the lake.

Police boats were used in other major cities. The Chicago Police reported that their police boat, which had been placed in the Chicago river as an experiment in the spring of 1912, was a total success and proved to be of great value. Safety Director Charles W. Stage visited Buffalo in October of 1913 to gather information on the police launch service there.   In February of 1914, Director Alfred A. Benesch traveled to New York City to learn about their methods of traffic and river police work.

As reported in The City Record, the official publication of the Council of the
City of Cleveland

Finally, in April of 1914, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Following a meeting with Public Safety Director A. A. Benesch, Councilman J. W. Reynolds stated he would introduce an ordinance authorizing the expenditure of $3,000 for the purchase of a police boat.”  The plan was to assign four police officers with two on the day shift and two on the night shift.

The Cleveland Police ordered a naphtha launch constructed in 1914 and it was named the Vigilant.  The launch was described in the Cleveland Plain Dealer as being “… thirty-six feet long, with a nine-foot beam, and carries a 50-horse power engine.  When going at full speed she makes but little noise.  She is so constructed that she can slip along the banks in shallow waters, and day and night she darts along, up on one side and down the other.  She is manned by four patrolmen who have seen service for years on the water.  Their eyes peer into the depths under the docks.”

A naphtha launch, sometimes called a “vapor launch,” was a small motor launch, powered by a naphtha engine. They were a particularly American design, brought into being by a local law that made it impractical to use a steam launch for private use.  The naphtha engine is an external combustion engine, generally similar to the type of small steam engine already in use for steam launches. The working fluid is naphtha, which unusually is also used as a liquid fuel to power the boiler. Appearance is similar to a steam launch, having a small vertical boiler and vertical cylinders.

The Vigilant was motored from Saginaw, Michigan, where it was constructed, by Secretary H. F. Stillman of the Public Safety Department and Patrolman George Huberty #265.  The launch arrived in Cleveland on September 3rd, 1914 and was inspected by Director Benesch at the East 9th Street Pier

Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 4, 1914

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the first crew consisted of “…Patrolman George Huberty #265, best known yachtsman in the department, will command the motor craft. Other members of the crew will be Patrolmen Herbert Dwyer # 25, Melville Porter #119, and John Shea #441. Patrolmen Samuel Cook #609 and James Brown #516 are placed in the auxiliary service.”

  • George C.Huberty, Badge Number 265; Appointed 07/13/1896; Retired 07/01/1925; End of Watch 12/09/1940. 
  • Herbert F. Dwyer, Badge Number 25; Appointed 06/01/1913; Resigned 07/01/1918; End of Watch 07/15/1963. 
  • Melville C. Porter, Badge Number 119; Appointed 10/01/1019; Resigned 07/09/1915. 
  • John V. Shea, Badge Number 441; Appointed 08/07/1905; Retired 10/01/1930; End of Watch 11/15/1955. 
  • Samuel R. Cook, Badge Number 609; Appointed 04/05/1913; Resigned 12/16/1918. 
  • James A. Brown, Badge Number 516; Appointed 02/20/1907; Retired 09/01/1933.
1898 Photo

Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 8, 1914

During its first season of service, the Vigilant was successful in cleaning up the docks.  Historically the docks had been a scene of constant robberies, plundering, assaults and murders.  Gangs had been breaking into box cars, railway and steamship storage houses, and vessels under cover of darkness, then sneaking home or to their hideouts under the docks.  Gliding swiftly and quietly along the river, the Vigilant allowed the crew to locate and arrest many of the culprits.

In his 1914 Annual Report to the Mayor, Police Chief Frederick Kohler reported:

The patrol boat “Vigilant” which was in commission from October 1st to November 15th during the brief period rendered valuable service in patrolling Cuyahoga River and the lake front, recovering lost and stolen property as well as rendering assistance to persons and boats in distress. The presence of this launch on the river front has had good effects.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 18, 1914

The Vigilant was docked at Fire Engine Company 15 until May of 1916, when it was moved to Suicide Pier.  Safety Director Benesch stated, “I believe the lakefront will be a better place for the police boat station than the river.” 

“Suicide Pier” was a wharf that belonged to the city and which was located at the foot of E. 9th (Erie) Street.  It is said to have been the scene of more tragic deaths, self-inflicted, than any other spot in Cleveland.  Human beings, wearied of existence, wander down to “Suicide Pier” and jump off into Lake Erie, there to bury all their trouble with themselves.

(Cleveland and its Neighborhoods – htts://

Fire Station Number 15, located under the Superior Viaduct – photo provided by the Western Reserve Fire Museum

During 1915 and early 1916 the Vigilant and its crew recovered missing vessel crew members lost on the lake, saved a sinking launch, and recovered the body of a contractor who chose to avoid a Municipal Court judgement of $60 by jumping off Suicide Pier with a stone tied about his neck.  In spite of its good work, the new administration did not approve of the funds required to keep the vessel in service.  Police Chief William S. Rowe felt the boat was costing too much for fuel and ordered the Vigilant docked and the crew was instructed to walk beats on the docks on the day and night shifts.  He said they could respond to a water emergency if needed.

The Vigilant served until May of 1916 when an advertisement was placed in the Plain Dealer offering it for sale.  It wasn’t until the summer of 1961 that the Cleveland Police officially went back into the business of patrolling the waters of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 28, 1916
Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 26, 1915

Written by Cleveland Police Historical Society and Museum volunteer Commander Robert Cermak, Ret.

Research assistance was provided by the Photograph Collection Department of the Cleveland Public Library.

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