Little Bits of History

Burn, Baby, Burn

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 22, 2011

Extinguishing the fire on the Cuyahoga River

June 22, 1969: The Cuyahoga River in Northeastern Ohio catches fire. The river meanders through the Cuyahoga Valley for 100 miles and empties into Lake Erie. Moses Cleaveland, a surveyor, found the mouth of the river in 1796 and liked the area so much he settled there and established his eponymous town. For a very short time, the Cuyahoga River was the western border of the United States.

Industrial pollution wasn’t new in the 20th century. The river had caught fire several times before. In 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, 1952, and in 1969. The fire in 1952 did between $1 and $1.5 million in damages to boats and riverfront property. The 1969 fire was much smaller. It was under control and extinguished within 30 minutes and did only $50,000 in damages. It is thought the fire started from a passing train throwing sparks that set fire to an oil slick. It was rather a non-event in Cleveland at the time with only the local fire patrol acting to put out the fire.

Small stories were buried in the local papers. However, Time Magazine ignited national interest when they carried the story about the burning river. The same problem was found in the Baltimore Harbor, the Buffalo River in New York, and the Rouge River in Michigan. The Cuyahoga River fire was the one to make it into the August 1, 1969 Time article.

In 1963 the Cleveland area was already concerned with cleaning up the river when they instituted the Cuyahoga River Basin Water Quality Committee. In 1968 the city of Cleveland passed a $100 million bond with the money going to clean up the river. In that same year, the federal government spent $160 million for the entire nation. Businesses were encouraged to clean up their effluvium and many did so voluntarily or due to pressure from the community. The river was improving, as can be inferred from the differences in damages between the 1952 fire and this one. Efforts have continued to improve the beautiful river and in 1998 the Cuyahoga River was one of 14 listed as American Heritage Rivers. While the river is beautiful in spots, the EPA continues to monitor problem areas – areas of stagnation and with unsafe levels of pollution.

“Some river! 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 grimly. ‘He decays.'” – Time Magazine, August 1969

“The lower Cuyahoga has no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.” – The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration

“I will never forget a photograph of flames, fire, shooting right out of the water in downtown Cleveland. It was the summer of 1969 and the Cuyahoga River was burning.” – EPA Administrator, Carol Browner

“What a terrible reflection on our city.” – ClevelandMayor, Carl Stokes

Also on this day:
Deke – In 1844, the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity is founded.
No Fun – In 1918, the worst circus train wreck took place.

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