June 22, 1969: Cuyahoga River fire brought embarrassment to Cleveland ...and environmental change

45 years after its fire, Cuyahoga River runs clean

CLEVELAND - It was 45 years ago, long before the web rose to prominence and made stories "go viral" on a daily basis. But that couldn't keep news of this relatively small fire local. 

On June 22, 1969, the world took notice of the dirty, polluted Cuyahoga River whose slow-moving current could never outrun the pace of the story as it stained the image of Cleveland and helped push the environmental movement to the forefront. 

As a cart carried its burning material across a bridge, some fell below and when the flames hit the Cuyahoga River, the water was so polluted it caught fire. 

"The fire burned a bridge but the fire was put out quickly," said Bill Zawiski of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. 

A single photograph published by Cleveland news organizations was picked up and shared by media across the nation and world. 

"That wasn't the worst fire, but it was the one which caught everyone's attention," said Jane Goodman of  Cuyahoga River Community Planning.

In fact, there had been several fires before, each fueled by huge amounts of industrial waste dumped by the city's many riverside manufacturers. 

Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, his brother, a freshman Congressman from the city, and others pushed Washington to do something about the filthy Cuyahoga. The environmental movement began to pick up speed.

Within three years, Congress passed the Cleanwater Act of 1972. 

During the early 1970s, more Americans became more concerned about the quality of water and air. The movement began to push industry to make changes in how they produced their products and where they dumped their waste.

Today, the Cuyahoga, which means "crooked" in an Iroquoian Native American language, runs considerably cleaner. 

"To us, our canary in the coal mine is fish -- their numbers and health," said Goodman. She said if the water is clean enough for fish to live, the river has returned to a healthy status. "Not perfect yet, but we're getting there," she added.

Industries still exist along the riverbanks, but they are in compliance with government laws regarding anti-pollution measures. Now, the Cuyahoga is so clean investors are putting recreational areas along its banks. There are plans for more housing. Kayakers and rowing teams are often seen on the river. 

When Moses Cleaveland, a Connecticut surveyor, sailed Lake Erie in 1796, he turned his boat into the Cuyahoga River because he saw that spot as a good place to begin a settlement. Cleaveland knew something about the great resources which the river and the lake would provide for any community. 

Commerce, business, and industry grew up along the riverbanks and they propelled Cleveland into a major industrial center. Cleveland is still a major business center but now its river is so clean, it is celebrated. 

Forty-five years ago, the Cuyahoga was an embarrassment because of the fire which the world saw.  It is cause for celebration, even looking back at the fire, because that event helped launch an environmental movement which is still in existence and growing stronger every day.

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