Cleveland, city of light, city of magic
Cleveland, city of light, you’re calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
‘Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin’ through my dreams.
Burn on, big river, burn on…
–“Burn On,” Randy Newman
The Cuyahoga River is one hundred miles long, splits the city of Cleveland into “East Side” and “West Side” before it empties into Lake Erie, and, as generations of northeast Ohio elementary school students have been taught, takes its name from Cayagaga, the Mohawk word for “crooked river.”
Unless it comes from the Seneca word Cuyohaga, “place of the jawbone,” or Gayoha’geh, Seneca for “on your chin.”
Or it could have come from kaye’sha and hake’nya’a, Wyandot words for “small land.”
Perhaps the word “Cuyahoga” sprang from Cayuga Iroquois: Gihe’hoga, or “Elm Tree River.”
This tangled etymology serves as a metaphor for the confused telling of the Cuyahoga River’s modern history.
Put another way: people don’t know what they think they know about the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire.
For one thing, no one has ever seen a picture of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire.
There aren’t any.
The June 22, 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River — likely caused by sparks from a passing train igniting an oil slick and industrial debris in the water — was extinguished by the Cleveland Fire Department within 20 minutes.
By the time news photographers arrived, the only photo op available was of firefighters standing on the burned train trestles, with the CFD fireboat Anthony J. Celebrezze on the river below.
That photo didn’t appear alongside the story of the fire which appeared in the June 23, 1969 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, maybe because it would’ve been larger than the article itself:
The story didn’t make the Plain Dealer‘s front page, although the photo of the fireboat and trestle did. For that matter, the full story didn’t even make the first section of the paper!
On page 11-C , after the PD’s “Women’s Pages” (household hints, a French blueberry flan recipe, a 50th anniversary announcement, society notes, grocery & department store ads, an astrology column), before the TV listings, and business & finance news, sandwiched between an ad for hair dye and a recurring consumer/vox populi Q&A column is the story of the Cuyahoga River Fire.
If this seems awfully casual for a fire five stories high burning on a body of water, maybe it was because it wasn’t the first time.
Or the second. Or the third.
Thanks to industrial waste, raw sewage, and assorted garbage & debris, there were at least thirteen fires on the Cuyahoga River, the first one in 1868. (In 1881, Cleveland mayor Rensselaer R. Herrick was already describing the river as an “open sewer.”)
(Incidentally, although Cleveland’s burning river is the most infamous example, but there were similar fires around the country before and after the June 1969 fire: Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Lincoln Creek in October 1951, the Buffalo River, Buffalo, NY, in January 1968, River Rouge near Detroit, Michigan in October, 1969.)
The June, 1969, Cuyahoga River fire might have been shrugged off, as all the previous ones had been, except for a couple of things:
The August 1, 1969 issue of Time magazine featured a brand new section reflecting increasing ecological concerns, and focused its attention on the recent Cuyahoga River fire as a sobering omen of environmental disaster.
However, Time accompanied their article with a picture from the 1952 Cuyahoga River fire. That fire was much more serious than the 1969 fire — causing $1.5 million in damage — but didn’t attract contemporary notice.
Although not a depiction of the more recent fire, the much more dramatic photo used by Time is likely why it remains in many people’s minds as representative of “the Cuyahoga River on fire.”
Time‘s description was equally vivid: “Some river! Chocolate- brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays.’ The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: ‘The lower Cuyahoga has no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.'”
The FWPCA, sadly, wasn’t wrong: one census found nine fish in the Cuyahoga River. Not nine fish species; nine fish total. The condition of the river and its banks weren’t hospitable to other kinds of life, either: birds, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, and flowers found it tough going.
Which leads to another reason why the 1969 Cuyahoga River wasn’t forgotten as quickly as other fires: that same issue of Time contained the first photos from Apollo 11, humankind’s first landing on the moon.
Anders said later, “Our Earth was quite colorful, pretty, and delicate compared to the very rough, rugged, beat-up, even boring lunar surface. I think it struck everybody that here we’d come 240,000 miles to see the moon and it was the Earth that was really worth looking at.”
Seeing Earth from a wholly different perspective, juxtaposed against images of, you know, a river on fire, emphasized not only just how fragile the Earth’s ecosystems are, but also starkly pointed out that our planet is the only obviously habitable place in the galactic neighborhood.
But America’s space program also demonstrated that seemingly impossible goals could be achieved through knowledge dedication, and hard work. (Well, all that and a lot of money.)
It would be reductive to trace a straight line between the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire and the first celebrations of Earth Day less than a year later.
And there’s no direct connection between the fire and the 1970 Clean Air Act, or the Clean Water Act, or the Endangered Species Act, or any of the many legislative acts meant to improve the state of the environment.
What can be said is that the Cuyahoga River is exponentially more healthy than it was in 1969.
In 1971 Dr. Seuss’s ecological classic The Lorax noted the plight of the humming-fish, whose pond had become contaminated by pollution:
You’re glumping the pond where the Humming-fish hummed!
No more can they hum, for their gills are all gummed.
So I’m sending them off. Oh their future is dreary.
They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary
I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.
But by late 1985, the condition of the Cuyahoga, and in turn, Lake Erie, had improved so much that Claudia Melear and Marjorie Pless, graduate students participating in the Ohio Sea Grant Education Program, wrote to Dr. Seuss and suggested that the text of The Lorax needed updating.
In January 1986, Dr. Seuss replied, “I do agree with you that my 1971 statement in The Lorax about the condition of Lake Erie needs a bit of revision. I should no longer be saying bad things about a body of water that is now, due to great civic and scientific effort, the happy home of smiling fish.“
The recovery of the Cuyahoga River has been remarkable: instead of nine fish total, 60 different species of fish now live in the Cuyahoga between Akron and Cleveland. Better still, in 2019, the Ohio EPA declared that fish caught in the river were safe to eat. (They do advise that you limit your Cuyahoga River-caught fish meals to one a month, but hey.)
All sorts of creatures have returned to the Cuyahoga River and its environs. After a long absence, beavers now live along the river, within the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, in a marsh that was once, literally, a junkyard. (Otters have also returned and are now the beavers’ neighbors.)
Perhaps most remarkable of all, bald eagles –perhaps the most successful beneficiary of the Endangered Species Act — are nesting in Cleveland’s Industrial Valley for the first time in a hundred years, not far from the site of the 1969 fire.
Humans enjoy the river as well — in and around the Cuyahoga, there are walking trails, skateparks, and restaurants with outdoor patios. On the water itself, you can ride on sightseeing boats, take a water taxi, kayak or canoe, row with a crew team, or practice dragon boat racing, or fish. In the winter, if it’s cold enough — which doesn’t happen very often — you could go ice skating, although it’s probably not a great idea, and there are better, safer, outdoor ice skating options.
And in theory, you could get a 10′ tall inflatable flamingo, register it with the state of Ohio as an alternative watercraft, outfit 5 of your friends and yourself with lifejackets, Hawaiian shirts, and captain’s hats, and, after checking for freighter traffic, spend the afternoon paddling up and down the Cuyahoga River. (The guys who did this are illustrated in the map legend above, because they are legendary.)
In recognition of the Cuyahoga River’s comeback, and its role in galvanizing the environmental movement, it was named the 2019 River of the Year by American Rivers, a conservation organization in Washington, D.C.
There is still a long way to go, in ecological terms. Climate change is an urgent problem, which requires urgent solutions before the damage to our planet becomes irreversible.
The Cuyahoga has also had occasional setbacks. Storm drains still deposit unwanted, harmful materials into the river. And, in 2020, improbably, a traffic accident near Akron resulted in a fuel spill which set the river ablaze again, briefly.
And there are still people and politicians who don’t understand how important it is to maintain a clean, healthy planet.
But we are not where we once were.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 7 and the Earthrise photograph, astronaut Bill Anders could have had the Cuyahoga River in mind when he wrote:
“Fifty years later, ‘Earthrise’ — the lingering imprint of our mission — stands sentinel. It still reminds us that distance and borders and division are merely a matter of perspective. We are all linked in a joined human enterprise; we are bound to a planet we all must share. We are all, together, stewards of this fragile treasure.”