Carl Stokes and the River Fire

Stokes credit City of Cleveland
Carl Stokes Interview near Cuyahoga River

The City of Cleveland

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in Cleveland just a few miles north of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Carl B. Stokes was mayor of Cleveland. In 1967, he had become the first elected African American mayor of a major US city.

Stokes is a hero in river fire story. The fire is an icon of the environmental movement. Stokes’ response to the fire helped it gain this status. Yet, he did not see himself as an environmentalist. He prioritized needs of what he called the “urban environment.” These included poor housing and poverty. The fire took place on Sunday, June 22. On Monday, Stokes led local press on a tour of the river. They visited the location of the fire. They also visited an industrial site and sewers that contributed to pollution.

David and Richard Stradling have written about Stokes in a 2015 book called, Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland. They write, “During the pollution tour, Stokes attempted to assign meaning to the fire. He argued that the city was not in a position to control the pollution within its borders…Cleveland had no power over its suburbs…And it had no control over state regulations and the pollution permit system.”

Betty Klaric was one of the nation’s first full-time environmental reporters. She covered the tour for the Cleveland Press. National magazines picked up her coverage. An August 1969 Time article described the Cuyahoga as the river that “oozes rather than flows.” National Geographic included a fold-out image of the Cuyahoga River in the December 1970 issue dedicated to the ecological crisis.

Before the fire, Stokes had focused on local actions improve water quality. In 1968, Cleveland voters passed a $100 million bond issue for sewer upgrades. On the press tour, he argued that this would not be enough. The river flowed through too many places before reaching Cleveland that were outside his control.

After the fire, Stokes gained tools to improve the city. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District formed in 1972. The city and suburbs now had a shared sewer system. The federal Clean Water Act from 1972 provided stronger mandates for pollution control. Stokes was one of the politicians who went to Washington to advocate for this legislation.

One change did not happen. The environmental movement of the time stayed focused on air and water pollution. It did not broaden to encompass the other issues of the “urban environment” that Stokes prioritized. He voiced this concern at a press event for the first Earth Day in 1970. He said, “I am fearful that the priorities on air and water pollution may be at the expense of what the priorities of the country ought to be: proper housing, adequate food and clothing.”

Stokes was ahead of his time. By the 1980s, the environmental justice movement helped broaden environmentalism. It focuses on how poor environmental conditions affect low-income and minority communities more than others. Part of Stokes’ legacy is a reminder to think about how we address issues to benefit us all.

For more information about events for the anniversary of the river fire visit the Cuyahoga Valley National Park web page.

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Last updated: May 2, 2019