Save the date. The 50th anniversary of the last fire on the Cuyahoga River takes place June 22. Events marking the anniversary will occur throughout the year, with the biggest events occurring the week of the anniversary. I will devote several columns to the topic during the course of the year. This column introduces the fire and highlights some events coming soon.
People have different memories of the fire. Some remember when it occurred and have strong recollections of the water pollution that caused it. Others know about it from textbooks and articles about the environmental movement. Others have heard about it through “burning river” events, beers, hot sauces, musical groups and more. It is a moment in history that has stayed in our collective memory.
Why celebrate a piece of history that does not necessarily reflect well on our region or our treatment of the environment? Our answer is that we are not just celebrating the fire. Instead, we will feature the response to the fire and changes that followed. Much of this story is positive and inspirational. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is part of the story. Established five years after the fire in 1974, the park now protects 22 miles of the river and 33,000 acres of its watershed.
Stories of the fire often combine fact and myth. Here is the narrative as I understand it. Railroad trestles near Republic Steel in Cleveland trapped debris in the river, causing it to pile up. Oil floating on the water added to the flammability. A passing train likely provided the spark that ignited the debris. The fire lasted for less than half an hour and resulted in minor damage to the railroad trestles. Photographers did not have time to get to the fire. The photograph often used to illustrate the 1969 fire comes from a much larger 1952 fire that caused $1.5 million in damage.
The 1969 fire did not surprise people. The river had burned at least 10 times over the previous century. The first newspaper coverage about the fire focused on the damage, not the fact the river had burned. At the time, people largely saw the river as part of industrial infrastructure. In that light, a river fire seemed more normal. It is when we view a river as a natural system that a fire seems out of place.
Almost immediately, the narrative began to change and focus on the pollution crisis. The fire took place on a Sunday. On Monday, Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes led local press on a pollution tour of the river. Betty Klaric, one of nation’s first full-time environmental reporters, covered the tour for the Cleveland Press. Her local coverage was picked up by national outlets, including Time magazine. An August Time article described the Cuyahoga as the river that “oozes rather than ?ows” and in which a person “does not drown but decays.”
The 1969 fire is sometimes portrayed as a direct cause of key milestones in the environmental movement, including the first Earth Day in 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. However, by 1969 momentum for change was already under way. Nationally, the Water Pollution Control Act of 1965 was a step in the right direction. Locally, Cleveland voters had passed a $100 million bond issue in 1968 for sewer construction and water treatment plant upgrades to protect Lake Erie.
The fire also wasn’t the biggest environmental story of the day. An oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., from earlier in 1969 received more immediate attention. At the time, the fire was just one more reminder about water pollution that piled onto public sentiments about the need for change. However, once in the public’s eye, it stayed, perhaps aided by the negative jokes about Cleveland that were popular in the 1970s. Today, the Cuyahoga River fire is a primary symbol of water pollution and the environmental movement. We are celebrating this symbolism, not just the facts of the story.
To join the celebration, look for events listed at www.cuyahoga50.org. Return to the site frequently, because more events will be added in the coming months. At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, we will host Cleveland Public Theater. It will present excerpts from Fire on the Water, a series of short plays inspired by the 1969 fire.
At 7 p.m. March 1, we will host Crooked Chronicles: A Century of River Clean Up in Cuyahoga Valley. A panel of experts will piece together the story within Cuyahoga Valley using historic photos, archival documents, and personal memories. Both events take place at Happy Days Lodge, in partnership with the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Fire on the Water has a fee. Crooked Conversations is free, but advanced registration is recommended.
Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.