A Burning River: 50 Years Later

Later this week, we’ll commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River. It’s an event that lives in infamy for our city, but it wasn’t an altogether unexpected event. As Case law professor Jonathan Adler explains, river fires weren’t uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the Cuyahoga caught fire at least 13 times, as did rivers in many industrial cities including Baltimore, Buffalo, and Philadelphia.

Since the Cuyahoga River fires were so frequent and destructive -- the November 1952 fire caused $1.5 million of damage and destroyed 3 tugboats, 3 buildings, and the Great Lakes Towing Company ship repair yards -- much had actually been done in the lead up to 1969 to improve water quality. As evidence of these improvements, the fire of 1969 only burned for 20 minutes and damaged two railroad trestles, causing only $50,000 of damage. By the time of the famous fire, Cleveland’s steel mills began to adopt pollution controls and in 1968, Cleveland voters overwhelmingly supported a $100 million bond to remediate the Cuyahoga through sewer system modernization and debris removal.

I’m proud to know that Cleveland was leading the charge for environmental protection before the Clean Water Act of 1972, and even before the fire that sparked national outrage in the pages of Time Magazine. Interestingly, the photo that made Cleveland a punchline of jokes around the country and that “spurred the Clean Water Act”, according to the public narrative, wasn’t from 1969. No photos exist of those brief flames. Rather, the public outcry was to imagery of the more destructive 1952 fire and undervalued the significant conservation efforts already underway.

Our experience of the Cuyahoga today is vastly different than it was 50 years ago. Now that individual polluters have been controlled, fish populations are growing, youth row on the river and launch sailboats into Lake Erie, and businesses thrive along the river. All of this progress is the legacy of the Clean Water Act. But sadly, the environmental protections of the law are not a permanent guarantee. 

Culminating in the rulings and policies developed in the 2000’s, more and more bodies of water were exempted from the Clean Water Act and the drinking water sources of 46% of Ohioans were not protected under the law. Federal EPA issued a landmark ruling in 2015 correcting these earlier actions, but new challenges and funding cuts are being proposed to reduce the Clean Water Act’s enforceability and effectiveness even today. It’s our time to be vigilant and ensure that our great natural treasures are protected for future generations.

This Friday and Saturday, we celebrate the Burning River Fest at the historic Coast Guard Station on the Cuyahoga River, overlooking downtown Cleveland and Lake Erie. To date, over $750,000 have been raised through the event for education and protection of our freshwater resources and this year, all of the funds raised will support permanent environmental education about the history of the Cuyahoga at the Coast Guard Station. We hope that you’ll join us in commemorating 50 years of progress in restoring the Cuyahoga, enjoy a celebratory summer night, and take part in the work to come.

The 18th annual Great Lakes Burning River Fest returns to the historic Coast Guard Station June 21-22 with headliners Cloud Nothings and Castlecomer. Proceeds from ticket and beer sales benefit clean water initiatives in Northeast Ohio. See the complete lineup and get your tickets today at burningriverfest.org.