How the Cuyahoga River Went from Dangerous to Beneficial

The Cuyahoga River just passed its 50th anniversary of the fire that famously dubbed the waters as “The Burning River” on June 22, 1969. But in March of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that fish from the Cuyahoga River were deemed safe to eat, despite decades of restrictions. How exactly did we go from a river full of toxic pollution to a river that’s now becoming a place of recreation?

The big issue is we need to understand that there wasn’t only one fire in the Cuyahoga River — there was 13 total, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.  So why was the fire of 1969 so big? Why did Time Magazine run the infamous photo of fire and smoke pouring out of the river? As Julie Grant from the Allegheny Front reports, it’s what helped pushed the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, sparking environmental regulations across the nation. And while the fire didn’t exactly lead to the creation of the EPA, it’s what helped bring the organization together along with thousands of other environmental issues at that time, like air pollution. 

Since the late 1880s up until the fire, Cleveland was an industrial city — steel mills and factories lined the Cuyahoga, becoming the next-best dumping place for trash and hazardous waste from these companies, like John D. Rockefeller’s oil company on the east bank. Signs like “No Swimming” and “Polluted Waters” were placed up and down the nearly 85-mile stretch, according to the Ohio History Connection. But when the the river caught fire, hazardous dumping quickly became a big no for the city.

Carl Stokes, Cleveland’s mayor in 1969 and the first black mayor of any major city, created a nearly $100 million bond issue for efforts to clean up the waterways. When the Ohio EPA was established in 1972, the same time the Clean Water Act was passed, workers would go into the water picking up debris or pollutants they would find, according to NPR. Some residents took matters into their own hands — Cleveland native Frank Samsel designed and a boat in the 1970s called the Putzfrau which sucked up chemicals and debris from the water, according to National Geographic. The fire also sparked the creation of Earth Day, which encourages volunteers to help come out and clean up their local communities. 

Now, just because the EPA lifted restrictions on fishing in the Cuyahoga River doesn’t mean there still isn’t more work to do. The Ohio EPA still recommends only one meal per month of fish from the river because of possible contaminants. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recently introduced his H2Ohio initiative, which allocates funds to help protect water quality. The initiative is expected to be in place for the next 10 years, and could use as much as $900 million to help clean up the river. 

It’s taken years upon years of efforts and clean up to make the Cuyahoga River a recreational river once again, as David Williams writes about in his blog. While there are now over 60 species of fish, kayakers galore and allowance to eat the fish, there’s still more years ahead to make the river truly and completely functional.

Here’s more information about the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969:

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