Cleveland was one of the industrial manufacturing powerhouses of the 1960s. On June 22, 1969 the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and as a result, environmental policies in the United States changed forever.
Around 12 PM, pieces of debris were sparked by a train on the railroad. The debris was trapped between two wooden panels of the railroad, so the river below it was on fire. The fire lasted about 30 minutes and the accident caused $50,000 in damages that were repaid by the Norfolk and Western Railway Co. and the Newburgh & South Shore Railway trestle.
The amazing thing about the tragedy was not that it was not the first time that the river had ever burned. The river also burned in 1952 and the event caused over $1 million in damages. All the way back in 1912, the accident was fatal as the burning of the river caused five deaths. Neither of those events were heavily covered by the media. (Ohio History Central)
In 1969 organizations were shifting from dumping waste to recycling. Times Magazine decided to publish an article about the Cuyahoga River and the country’s pollution issues. The river was filled with oil and pollutants, so people were advised to not go into the river. If they fell in the river, they were advised to go to the hospital.
Here is a link to a broadcast news story with more about the polluted river. It was originally produced by WKYC TV in 1967.
The burning of the Cuyahoga River in 1969 was an event that was viewed by historians as one of the main influencers of what we know today to be the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, putting restrictions on the amount of pollutants that we could dump into our bodies of water. In her article for the Allegheny Front, Julie Grant interviewed her sources as they described the chain of events that happened throughout that era.
The Ohio EPA, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and other local organizations have worked hard throughout the years to restore the river’s prominence and safety. The U.S. and Canada enhanced water safety standards in the International Joint Commission and cleanup has been a slow but successful process.
The cleanup by local community organizations and the EPA has helped restore the fish population in the river and kayakers go for adventures in the river. There is even a restaurant located on the Cuyahoga River now (Beau’s On The River).
I did not live through the burning of the river, but I am proud that we get to enjoy a river resurgence today. All of these advancements in the river would not have been possible without the people and caring organizations in local communities.
Here is a link to a video about the current state of the river from the Ohio EPA.