Fire On The Cuyahoga River: 1969's Environmental Wake-Up Call

Culture | June 21, 2019

Left: Firemen spray water on a fire in the Cuyahoga River in 1952, in a photograph that was wrongly associated with the 1969 fire. Right: Fire. Sources: Getty / Bettmann; Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1960s, many Americans were in love with the wonders of nature, and were talking about the need to treat the planet better. Polluting just wasn't groovy. 

Then, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire.

This relatively small, but seemingly bizarre, event was so symbolic of the pollution problem that it became a national news story that united budding environmentalists. Rivers shouldn't burn, that's just a fact of chemistry -- so a burning river was cause for mass concern. What terrible things had we done to the Cuyahoga River to make it flammable?

The story of the burning Cuyahoga, brought to a national audience by Time magazine, was a compelling one, even if the details weren't quite what the public thought. In the end, the river fire helped to bring about the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. Doug Kusak, a historical interpreter for Cleveland Metroparks, told Ideastream:

It was kind of like that wake-up call to the country, we’ve got to change things.

The Cuyahoga Had Been Burning For A Century

The 1952 fire on the Cuyahoga. Source: (history.com)

The Cuyahoga River caught fire on June 22, 1969 -- but that was hardly the first time it had burned. In fact, the first documented fire on the Cuyahoga occurred a century earlier, in 1868. The 1969 fire wasn't a big story in the Cleveland area; news crews didn't rush to the scene, and there are no known photographs of the fire. The '69 fire was actually the third fire on a Lake Erie tributary within the preceding two years, and it was the smallest. In fact, by the '60s, industry had actually started to taper off on the Cuyahoga. According to Michael Rotman of Cleveland Historical

The ‘69 fire ... was not really the terrifying climax of decades of pollution, but rather the last gasp of an industrial river whose role was beginning to change. Nevertheless, Cleveland became a symbol of environmental degradation.

How Does A River Burn?

The 1952 Cuyahoga River fire. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library

The story that the Cuyahoga caught fire because it was so polluted is essentially true. The Cuyahoga connects Akron to Cleveland, and this corridor was an industrial hub, with steel mills, paint and chemical works, and, at one point, at least 20 oil refineries. One of those refineries was John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of Ohio. In the early days of oil refining, as the oil was refined, dumping unusable portions of refined crude oil into the waterways was a common method of disposal. One of the products that were dumped in those days was gasoline, which was more or less useless until widespread demand for internal combustion engines -- cars. Though the water itself wasn't flammable, the floating petroleum slicks were.

Previous Fires Had Been Bigger -- Even Deadly

Map of the Cuyahoga watershed. Source: (Wikipedia)

In 1883, a fire made headlines. That fire began at the Shurmer and Teagle Refinery. Oil leaking from the Standard Oil Refinery created a trail for the fire to follow, and it ignited nine Standard Oil storage tanks, which added to the spill. The fire continued for three days, nearly destroying Cleveland.

In 1912, five men were killed fighting a river fire.

The "big one" that locals were most likely to remember was the the 1952 fire at the Great Lakes Towing Company shipyard. Prior to the fire, many companies had taken steps to limit oil seepage, but that didn’t seem to do much to stem the tide of oil, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer reporting “nearly six inches of oil on the river.” The '52 fire caused more than $1 million in damages.

Safeguards implemented included the use of a fireboat that patrolled looking for oil slicks and clearing them using high-pressure hoses. There were also laws in place, such as the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, but they were largely ineffective.

The Media Gets More Involved

Political cartoon by Bill Roberts.

In the ‘60s, Bill Roberts, a cartoonist for the Cleveland Press, created several political cartoons addressing the polluted Cuyahoga. At this point, other journalists got involved as well. In 1968, Cleveland voters approved a $100 million project to clean up the river, but it wasn’t enough.

The 1969 Fire, And The Mayor's Press Conference

Newspaper clipping with image from 1952 fire. Source: (pophistorydig)

It's believed that the 1969 started when a train passing over a trestle that crosses the Cuyahoga threw a spark that ignited a slick on the river below. The burning oil slick floated under two wooden bridges for important train trestles, igniting them. The fire lasted about a half an hour, and caused an estimated $50,000 in damages. 

Cleveland's mayor, Carl Stokes, had attracted attention as the first black mayor of a major American city, which had brought the national press to Cleveland. He used that public platform to advocate for better conditions on the Cuyahoga, and he had a flair for the dramatic. The day after the 1969 fire, Stokes held a press conference on the charred trestle. The Plain Dealer reported that Stokes stated, “we have no jurisdiction over what’s dumped in there.” Stokes also criticized the federal government.

'Time' Magazine Alerts The Nation

Source: eBay

In August 1969, Time ran a story about polluted rivers, zeroing in on the Cuyahoga as one that “oozes rather than flows.” Time's report came out a month and a half after the minor fire had actually occurred, and actually featured a picture from the 1952 fire. Time’s use of this picture gave the public the impression that the 1969 fire had been quite serious, and this misconception helped to create the mythology.

The story featuring the Cuyahoga fire wasn't cover-worthy -- it was actually tucked into the magazine's newly-formed environment section. But a major news event of the period -- Senator Ted Kennedy's accident at Chappaquiddick -- made the issue a big seller, bringing the Cuyahoga story and its misleading photo to a larger audience.

The Big Results From A Small Fire

Left: EPA photo from 1973 showing the Harshaw Chemical Company discharging waste into the Cuyahoga. Right: National Geographic's December 1970 issue. Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Amazon

The Cuyahoga fire of '69, or at least the nation's skewed perception of it, is considered a catalyst for a flurry of environmental interest and action by the public, the press, and the U.S. government. The first Earth Day happened on April 22, 1970. Students from Cleveland State University joined the demonstrations that day, protesting the pollution on the Cuyahoga.

Then, National Geographic devoted its December 1970 cover story to “Our Ecological Crisis.” The issue included coverage of the Cuyahoga. That month also marked the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, the story of the Cuyahoga lives on, not only in the Clean Water Act of 1972, but in music, a festival, and even a beer.

An Ecological Crisis Becomes Part Of Our Culture

Source: (clevescene.com)

The fire became fodder for thoughtful popular music -- Randy Newman released “Burn On, Big River” in 1972, R.E.M. released “Cuyahoga” in 1986, and Adam Again alluded to the fire in “River on Fire” in 1992. The Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland began brewing Burning River Pale Ale in the ‘90s and in 2001, Dan and Pat Conway founded the Burning River Fest. For 2019, the 50th anniversary of the 1969 fire, several organizations are planning specials events, including Cuyahoga River Restoration, which is using the tagline “50 years of Cuyahoga River recovery. No fires. Just fish, freight, and fun.”

Tags: 1960s News | A Brief History Of... | Environment | Rare Facts And Stories About History | U.S. Government

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!