Irland Reflects On The History of the Cuyahoga River

The Cuyahoga River is a body of water that has tons of history. Through its ups and downs it continues to be valued by community members in Northeast Ohio. The Cuyahoga River has seen the absolute low points of pollution as well as the recent high point of being named a state water trail.

To understand the river’s history, we must examine it from the very beginning. The Cuyahoga River formed 11,700 years ago after the final Ice Age concluded. The glaciers melted and it became a flowing body of water. The East branch of the river begins in Montville Township in Geauga County while the west branch has two feeder streams in Hamden Township.

Native Americans from many different tribes arrived from 200 BC to 1000 A.D. The Cuyahoga River was their primary living space as they used it primarily for hunting and transportation. However, in 1662 European settlers emerged in Cuyahoga County because King Charles II granted it to them is a part of the Northwest Ordinance. The Europeans banished the Native American settlers from their land because the European hierarchy had a strong desire to colonize and expand.

In 1825 the Ohio Erie Canal was created. The canal was designed to create a channel of transportation long enough from the Ohio River to Lake Erie so that trade and transportation could improve. The canal was made fully functional in 1833 and the mouth of the Cuyahoga River expanded to form what is now known as Whiskey Island. Throughout the next 100 years the Cuyahoga River would feel the negative effects of incoming industrialization and pollution.

John D Rockefeller established his first oil refinery for his company Standard Oil in 1863. At that time however, oil was used to convert it into kerosene or paraffin. Rockefeller disposed of the oil that he did not use by putting it into the river. This could be what inevitably caused the Cuyahoga River to become a dirty body of water filled with waste. Rockefeller prioritized his business first and he believed that all of the pollution and hazardous dumping was the cost of doing business. People began tasting petroleum in the water in the Cuyahoga River was headed towards a massive downward spiral.

The 1952 Cuyahoga River fire on Jefferson and W 3rd Street. Photo Credit: clevelandmemory.org

The Cuyahoga River fire in 1969 wasn’t the first time that the river had actually caught on fire. The river went up in flames 12 times before that. The first burning was in 1868. In 1912, five dock workers were killed in the fourth documented burning. Fast-forward 40 years later to 1952 and another fire happened that caused $1.3 million in damages. In 1963 the League of Women Voters was formed to inform the public about DDT and other dangerous materials that were in the river. Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Richard Eller published a now iconic photo of his dirty hand after it was dipped in the river. The Cuyahoga River was known as an open sewer for the entire community and the final burning of the river in 1969 forced Americans to change their views and take a stance against pollution.

On June 22, 1969 around 12 PM a piece of debris on a railroad above the river caught fire from the oncoming train. Pieces of the bridge fell into the water and the fire lasted for about 30 minutes. No one was injured, but $50,000 in damages was repaid by the Norfolk and Western Railway Co. and the Newburgh & South Shore Railway trestle. TIME Magazine was unable to get a photo of this burning, but they still released an article about the Cuyahoga River’s history to help spark the environmental preservation movement. The article was released later that summer on August 1, 1969. After the article was released, generations of people came together to help save the river and help it become what it is today.

Outdoor recreation planner Andrea Irland is one of those individuals who has helped change the river for the better. Irland remembers growing up on the east side of Cleveland and heading into the Cuyahoga River to go for a swim. She explained that at the time she did not take into account the hazardous environment of the river.

Irland has worked near the Cuyahoga River as a Park Ranger, an administrative assistant for the National Park Service, and now as an outdoor recreation specialist for the National Park Service for nearly 30 years. She helped create a one mile trail around a lake in Ridgewood, Ohio that connected three schools, a senior citizen center, and village administration to park resources. She explained that her project partners deserve lots of credit for helping initiatives like these establish.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed on October 23, 1972. This is the same year that the Clean Water Act was passed and the first Earth Day was two years earlier on April 22, 1970. Environmental groups have made it their mission to rid the river of the pollution that has negatively impacted it over the past 50 years.

In his book, The Cuyahoga that was originally published in 1998, William Donahue Ellis says something that still resonates today:

“Many a man is made by a river. But the Cuyahoga was made by men. It does not flow through oil fields, rubber plantations, nor iron-ore regions, but men made it the capital of oil, coal, rubber, and iron.”

Donahue Ellis said many years ago that the Cuyahoga River’s state was entirely because of the humans who pumped waste into it. It is arguable that one could say that the Cuyahoga River is still made by human beings because of the positive environmental strides that we have seen today.

On October 4, 2019 over 20 different community organizations came together to celebrate the Cuyahoga River as it was named the 13th designated state water trail in Ohio. The water trail has 24 designated access points where recreationalists can explore the river. Irland described the scene from this very emotional day.

“It was a big celebration. We had a paddle parade and we had a ribbon cutting and speeches and it was a very good day,” Irland said.

She explained that there is still a lot of work to be done, but the water trail designation has positively changed the Cuyahoga River forever.

“We say that the river that was once on fire is now sparking with excitement for the future and that the water trail will be one of those lasting legacy projects that continues on, that speaks to the rejuvenation of the Cuyahoga River.”

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