How the Cuyahoga River Catching on Fire Ultimately Led to Earth Day and the Creation of the EPA

Steve DiMatteo

Cuyahoga River Fire

It's the joke everyone likes to make about Cleveland. 

"Hey, remember when the river caught on fire?"

To which you can respond, "You'll have to be more specific, because it happened a whole bunch of times." 

In the 1960s, the Cuyahoga River actually caught fire more than a dozen times, as it had long been a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste from the city's manufacturing companies.

And while river fires weren't all that newsworthy to Clevelanders by the end of the decade, the blaze on June 22, 1969 (capping off a tumultuous decade that only led to a new one in which Cleveland eventually became the car bomb capital of the world) sparked a national movement to address river pollution and our overall environmental awareness, culminating in the establishment of Earth Day and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

All it took that day was a spark from the nearby train tracks, setting the river ablaze, with flames reaching as high as five stories high. Since this was just another ho-hum event in Cleveland, there isn't even a picture of this particular fire, which only lasted about 30 minutes and caused about $50,000 in damage; it barely recorded a blip in the local press.

But Time magazine certainly noticed, publishing an article on it with an accompanying picture from a previous Cuyahoga River fire in 1952. And National Geographic featured the river in a cover story entitled "Our Ecological Crisis," which helped turn the Cuyahoga River into a symbol for the overall environmental movement over the ensuing years.

After Earth Day and the EPA were established in 1970, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Totally fair or not, the Cuyahoga River became a galvanizing symbol for the environmental movement, and the 1969 fire help move progress along at a brisk pace to begin the '70s.

The Cuyahoga River Had Always Been Disgusting

Today, it might seem impossible to consider the Cuyahoga River as anything less than beautiful. During those wonderful summer months, Clevelanders go boating or ride kayaks on the river; a weekend in the Flats is a hopping place both in and out of the water.

But that wasn't always the case. Thanks to the industrial sewage being dumped into the river on a daily basis, it was flat-out disgusting from the very start. According to František Vlček, a Czech immigrant in the 19th century, "the water was yellowish, thick, full of clay, stinking of oil and sewage. Piles of rotting wood were heaped on either bank of the river, and it was all dirty and neglected... I was disappointed by this view of an American river."

So much for making a good impression.

The Cuyahoga River Wasn't Alone, Either

The United States was in a bad place environmentally in the 1960s. With nearly a hundred million vehicles on the road by 1970, air pollution was enveloping the country. Even in 1969, the same year as the vaunted Cuyahoga River fire, there was a major oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. The truth is, Cleveland had already been working towards cleaning up its sewers and water treatment plants; this was more or less the worst possible timing. Not to mention a picture of a burning river - correct date or not - is worth a thousand words.

This idea of Cleveland as a toxic place has been a tough label to shed throughout the ensuing decades. But the city has done a great job in evolving from its lowest points of the 1970s, even embracing the "burning river" nickname to the point where you see that being used in every kind of local product imaginable.

If a river blaze helped spur the national environmental movement and ultimately give Cleveland a pretty cool nickname in the process, that's not such a bad way to use a toxic sludge river to your advantage.

(Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library)

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