HISTORY

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It Oozes Rather Than Flows

When the oozing Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, it may not have even made the “Top 10” list of Cleveland river fires—and few realized it was actually the 13th time a fire had been documented. 

The 1969 fire was mild compared to its predecessors, extinguished even before photographers arrived. Still, that Cuyahoga River blaze holds a prominent place in Cleveland’s history and America’s environmental movement, largely because it landed in TIME Magazine. The fire became the punchline of jokes and a lasting symbol of environmental neglect, both in Cleveland and across the country. Over the last five decades, the river’s ongoing resurrection is a testament to the work that brought it back to life, and a reminder of how easily it can be taken for granted.

 
Not the 1969 fire, but a larger Cuyahoga River fire from the 1950s.

Not the 1969 fire, but a larger Cuyahoga River fire from the 1950s.

 

Elected in 1967, Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, a long-time advocate for environmental responsibility, criticized the federal government and vowed to fight for a cleaner Cuyahoga. Nationally and locally, attention to the environment heightened as people, policies, and projects contributed to the crooked river’s rebirth. In 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created, and two years later the Clean Water Act was signed into law.

Once declared “dead” by the national media, the Cuyahoga River now boasts more than 60 different species of fish. Data collected in recent years demonstrate that the water quality in the river is improving and its capacity to support a more diverse aquatic community is increasing.

An undated Cleveland Plain Dealer photo by Marvin Greene shows the state of the Cuyahoga River in the 1960s.

An undated Cleveland Plain Dealer photo by Marvin Greene shows the state of the Cuyahoga River in the 1960s.

The Cuyahoga River is being redefined as a destination, even as she continues on her own journey back to health. There is still more work required to improve water quality conditions. When we look back at the progress since 1969, we see determined local action supported by strong federal policy. Today’s major threats to the health of the river and the entire Great Lakes are different than when the river caught on fire, but no less severe. We have algal blooms, climate change, plastic pollution, invasive species, and other threats. But the recipe for progress is the same – local action supported by strong policy. 

As agencies, businesses, and people continue to appreciate and protect our natural resources, Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River will continue to improve. The 50th anniversary of the infamous Cuyahoga River fire presents an opportunity to amplify that message, in Cleveland and beyond.

Excerpted and adapted from Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s Clean Water Works 2018 | Additional educational resources available at http://neorsd.org/RiverReborn

Cuyahoga River fire, 1948. Courtesy CSU Library, Division of Special Collections.

Cuyahoga River fire, 1948. Courtesy CSU Library, Division of Special Collections.

Stokes News Conference, 1969: Mayor Carl Stokes talks to reporters near the site of the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections.

Stokes News Conference, 1969: Mayor Carl Stokes talks to reporters near the site of the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections.

Easterly Sewage Treatment Works construction, 1932.

Easterly Sewage Treatment Works construction, 1932.

 

 

TO learn more, visit:

Cuyahoga River Restoration

Cuyahoga River Area of Concern

Celebrating the Comeback of the Burning River, 1969-2019 (Ohio EPA)
(12-Minute Video released November 2, 2018)

Cuyahoga Briefly, Cleveland Public Theatre
(Performance on June 10, 2015 at Music Box Supper Club)