In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. A passing train threw sparks down to the water where they ignited pieces of oil-slicked debris. The fire blazed fast and leaped more than five stories high.
TIME magazine published a cover story on the event and made Cleveland the shame of the nation. TIME described the river as a place where nothing “drowns but decays.” We became the oozing, scummy symbol of industrial pollution, a shameful reminder of how fouled so much of the United States had become.
But the truth was more complicated and interesting. The 1969 fire wasn’t the first industrial river to catch fire. Hardly! Rivers in other cities — Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Buffalo — had also previously caught fire. In fact, TIME used a photo of a 1952 Cuyahoga fire for their cover as no one bothered to take photos of the relatively minor 1969 fire.
Despite TIME’s sleight of hand, the story was out there and Cleveland became the poster child of environmental neglect and irresponsibility. Yet, out of this dubious event came great things, things that changed the nation. Spurred by the notoriety of the event, federal legislators passed the National Environmental Policy Act. This established the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act thereby allowing states to reclaim their land and water from industrial pollution and make environmental protections a societal norm.
As for Cleveland? 1969 was the last time our river caught fire. We cleaned the Cuyahoga up — we’re still at it — and the river is once again home to a thriving ecosystem.
Our city’s reputation has taken longer to recover but we are proud of who we are and how far we’ve come. We find strength in our history, because, as Clevelanders always do, we rose up from the mistakes and found the shared vision, resources, and grit to create a beautiful future.
This story is at the heart of Burning River Advisory Group.