How the Last Fire on the Cuyahoga River Kick-Started the Clean Water Movement

June 21, 2019 - (5 min read)

Many American rust belt cities have risen high, fallen hard, and come back to life – and a case could be made that none rose so high nor fell quite so far as Cleveland, Ohio. The fortune of this city on the shore of Lake Erie has ebbed and flowed in tandem with its iconic river, the Cuyahoga, whose journey to the lake takes it through the city’s heart.

June 22, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the last fire on the Cuyahoga River.

It wasn’t the first fire—or even the worst fire.

In fact, it was the thirteenth time that chemical-laden oily debris had burst into flames during the previous hundred years. It was relatively minor and put out so quickly that no photographers arrived in time to capture an image of the flames (the popular representation of the Cuyahoga on fire shows the 1952 fire, which was much larger and more photogenic).

It was, however, the last fire, and the last straw for a city struggling to right itself from a century of environmental degradation, economic downturns and racial strife.

Unfettered by environmental regulations, the industries that fueled the region’s growth used the last six miles of the hundred-mile-long Cuyahoga as a convenient waste dump. These industries were also what made Cleveland an economic powerhouse, the country’s fifth largest city in 1920. This river is where John D. Rockefeller started Standard Oil, where Sherwin Williams built a paint empire, and where the Ohio & Erie Canal made the confluence of the canal, the Cuyahoga and the Great Lakes one of the most important commercial transportation hubs in the country.

The 1969 fire was, in many ways the turning point for the city’s rebirth. Though the work of cleaning the river had begun earlier, the spark that started the fire was one catalyst in a perfect storm of circumstances that many consider the ignition of the modern clean water and environmental movements.

Cleveland had just elected Carl Stokes, the first African-American mayor of a major American city. Stokes was one of the first to recognize pollution and its consequences—as an environmental health issue, but also as social and racial justice issues. He had already managed to convince the city’s voters to pass a $100 million bond issue to help clean up the river, but he recognized that it would take federal action to stop the degradation and begin the restoration. His brother, Congressman Louis Stokes made it his mission to pass the Clean Water Act. With the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as its own agency to enforce the Act, the pieces were in place.

The river that was once a source of embarrassment is now a cause for celebration. Industry has cleaned up its act, allowing the river to rebound. In terms of aquatic life, that means that where no fish could survive fifty years ago, more than forty species of fish now live, many of which are pollution-sensitive and can only thrive in a healthy river. And as of this year, with a few exceptions, it is safe to eat the fish caught in all one hundred miles of river. As a feeder to the Great Lakes fishery, the Cuyahoga is now a beneficial contributor to the economic engine that is sport fishing and charter boat operations.

Visitors from organizations and governments around the world come to ask how this remarkable turnaround happened. Our answer is always: government regulations, partnerships and money. The Clean Water Act slowed pollution. Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency enforced the laws while supporting and monitoring the progress of recovery. The designation of the river as a federal Area of Concern brought together stakeholders, and tapping into Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding has allowed partners to do restoration work that previously would have been impossible.

The waterway that once divided the city now unites it. Over the years, recreational use has increased exponentially, bringing kayakers, paddleboarders and other visitors to the ship channel. The Cuyahoga Water Trail is expected to achieve state designation this year, which will bring more recreational access. Two major facilities now field competitive school and university rowing teams and host national regattas, and an annual paddleboard race coincides with the anniversary of the fire. Cruise boats and the Cleveland Metroparks’ water taxi ply the waters.

The warehouses that once stored goods from the river’s heyday as a maritime transportation center are now residential lofts and condos, restaurants and event spaces. Major investments have been made in new development along the channel, notably the Flats East Bank development and Nautical entertainment complex at the mouth of the river.

The comeback of the river has been a key contributor to the comeback of Cleveland. North Coasters may still debate about whether the fire, which for years made the Cuyahoga the poster river for pollution and gave the city at its mouth an inferiority complex, was a good thing or a bad thing. Fifty years on, the scales are shifting to appreciate and celebrate the fire as an important event. Without the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire, the tides of the clean water movement may have turned more slowly and the asset we enjoy today might still be the liability it once was.

jgoodman-photo2019About the author: Jane Goodman is a City Councilwoman in South Euclid, a Cleveland suburb, and is Executive Director of Cuyahoga River Restoration, the river’s nonprofit organization. She serves on the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Federal Advocacy Committee, and brings thirty years’ experience in environmental work and government operations to the task.