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

By | June 20, 2019

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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

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The 1952 fire on the Cuyahoga. Source: (

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.