Stories about the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire often combine fact and myth. People generally agree about what occurred on and immediately after June 22, 1969. Myth enters the stories when people describe the fire as a primary cause of major milestones in the environmental movement. Regardless, the Cuyahoga River fire has become a symbol of water pollution and the environmental movement. Today, we celebrate this symbolism, not just the facts of the story.
The fire took place in Cleveland a few miles north of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Heavy industry dominates this section of the river. Railroad bridges near Republic Steel trapped debris in the river, causing it to pile up. Oil on the water added to its flammability. A train likely provided the spark that ignited the debris. The fire lasted for less than a half hour and resulted in minor damage to the railroad bridges.
The 1969 fire did not surprise people. The river had burned at least 10 times over the previous century. The first newspaper coverage focused on the damage, not the fact that the river had burned. At the time, people largely saw the river a 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. 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. National outlets picked up the story. An August Time article described the Cuyahoga as the river that “oozes rather than ﬂows” and in which a person “does not drown but decays.”
The 1969 fire is sometimes portrayed as a direct cause of the first Earth Day in 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. However, by 1969 change was already underway. Nationally, the Water Pollution Control Act of 1965 had become law. 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 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, 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. The fire makes frequent appearances in textbooks about the environmental movement. It was part of negative jokes about Cleveland that were popular in the 1970s. Today, “burning river” is used in names of events, beers, hot sauces, and musical group. Thus, as a symbol, the Cuyahoga River fire remains relevant. What does it mean to you?
Last updated: May 2, 2019