Cuyahoga River Burst into Flames (1969)

What many people consider the precipitating event of the modern environmental movement occurred on June 22, 1969, when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames.

Fire burning on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in 1952 (photo by Cleveland Press, in the Cleveland State University archives)

            On that Sunday morning, floating debris, coated in oil, jammed under two railroad bridges that crossed the river.  A spark from a passing train ignited the fire.  Flames shot up as high as 50 feet into the air.  A fireboat on the river quickly extinguished the flames, aided by fire crews working from the trestles.  In a half-hour, the fire was out, causing $50,000 damage to the railroad bridges, but otherwise little noticed.  The Cleveland Plains-Dealer didn’t even run a picture of the blaze.

            But the event was hardly over.  Amidst the growing concern about environmental problems around the country, Time Magazine ran a story on August 1, 1969 (“America’s sewage system and the price of optimism”) that made the Cuyahoga River famous.  “Some river!” the author wrote, “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.  ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland’s citizens joke grimily. ‘He decays.’”

The Cuyahoga River upstream (that is, south) of Cleveland (photo by National Park Service)

            The fire on June 22, however, was nothing new.  A dozen fires on the river had been documented in the previous one hundred years.  A fire in 1912 claimed five lives, and the biggest fire, in 1952, caused more than $1 million in damage.  Photos of the 1952 fire are typically shown when the 1969 fire is discussed—because the 1969 fire was put out so quickly no photographs exist.  In reality, the Cuyahoga River was one of the most polluted in the country at the time of the fire.  The “river that burns” became symbolic of the environmental mess of the country—and especially industrial towns like those in Ohio.  It earned Cleveland the unfortunate nickname of “the mistake by the lake”; Randy Newman’s song “Burn on, Big River,” immortalized the situation; and, even today, the Great Lakes Brewing Company produces Burning River Pale Ale to commemorate the event .

            Ironically, the fire on June 22 should be recognized as the start of good things for the river.  With at least a dozen precursors, the fire was the last, not the first, time the river burned.  We have the burning of the Cuyahoga River to thank for an exclamation point on the growing narrative of environmental awareness of the times. Spurred by this event, the U.S. began passing environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act of 1970 (learn more about the Clean Water Act here).  In the 15 years following the fire, the U.S. instituted a catalog of environmental agencies, laws and regulations that have seen our environment improve dramatically and continually.

The Cuyahoga River has improved greatly since the 1969 fire (photo by k_e_lewis)

            And the Cuyahoga River has improved right along with the rest.  Forty years after the fire, in 2009, Cleveland celebrated “The Year of the River.”  From no life present in the river at the time of the fire, it now boasts more than 40 fish species including several—steelhead trout, northern pike—that require high-quality water conditions.  Water quality has improved, but is not yet at the levels needed to allow all uses, like swimming.  The Cuyahoga River is one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern, denoted because of remaining environmental problems.  Through the restoration group that monitors the Area of Concern, the river continues to gather the support, from government agencies and local organizations, needed to achieve a fully restored ecosystem.

References:

Cuyahoga River Area of Concern.  Available at:  http://www.cuyahogaaoc.org/index.html. Accessed June 23, 2017.

Time Magazine.  1969.  America’s Sewage System and the Price of Optimism.  Time Magazine, August 1, 1969.  Available at:  http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,901182-1,00.html. Accessed June 23, 2017.

Cleveland Plain Dealer.  1969.  Oil slick fire damages 2 river spans.  Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 23, 1969.  Available at:  http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2009/01/oil_slick_fire_damages_2_river.html. Accessed June 23, 2017.

Ohio History Central.  Cuyahoga River Fire.  Ohio History Central.  Available at:  http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Cuyahoga_River_Fire. Accessed June 23, 2017.

Rotman, Michael.  2010.  Cuyahoga River Fire.  Cleveland Historical, September 22, 2010.  Available at:   https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/63#.WU0sqWjys2w.  Accessed June 23, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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