River Ablaze

June 19, 2019

It’s not every day that you watch a river burn. It’s been 50 years since an ember from a passing rail car ignited contamination on the surface of the Cuyahoga RiverFor one 91-year-old, lifelong Cleveland residentthe event left an indelible memory. She shares her recollections here about how it sparked environmental reform. 

The Cuyahoga River flows through Cleveland into Lake Erie. Along the way, the river passes through an industrial area. In the 1960’s it flowed by steel mills, manufacturing plants, and a paint factory, taking in their waste streams. 

“I remember people didn’t want to live along the river because the paint would fall off the siding of their houses from the fumes of the industrial area, she explained. 

The oily debris sometimes caught fire. On June 22, 1969, it burned for the last time. Records indicate that responders were able to control the blaze within half an hourbut the image of a burning river became iconic of a movement. 

Cleveland mayor, Carl Stokes, who had supported a $100 million campaign to clean up the city’s waterways, took the opportunity that day to show reporters and political figures firsthand the environmental reality. News outlets such as Time magazine reported the incident along with dramatic images. The stories struck a nerve.  

“The whole thing with the Cuyahoga River was disgraceful,” the Cleveland resident explains. “When it [the river] caught on fire, it was a shameful occurrence that we made national news for a river that caught on fire…and for politicians to let it get to that position before anything was done. 

Soon thereafter, environmental concerns emerged as a political priority. As NPR reports, “By January of 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War, President Nixon dedicated one-third of his State of the Union address to environmental problems.” By the end of 1970, Nixon signed an executive order creating the US Environmental Protection Agency. And by 1972, the Clean Water Act became law.  

It was a different time then, and so sad to be in the place known for the river that caught on fire,” she recalls. It’s hard to explain those feelings. It was terrible. The renewal now is a great success, especially for those of us who remember and were around to witness that terrible time. 

This poignant recollection offers a valuable historical perspective, as well as insights applicable to contemporary environmental issues. What do you think it will take today to spark real environmental change?

About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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