“Burn On, Big River…” Cuyahoga River Fires


1969 Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland, Ohio

“In June 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire — a river long polluted with oily wastes, chemicals, and debris. The river fire, coming at a time of emerging national concern over pollution, made big news and became something of a famous disaster. The incident helped give momentum to a newly emerging national environmental movement. Only months before, on the beaches of Santa Barbara, California, an oil spill from a Unocal Oil Company offshore rig in January 1969, had soiled some 30 miles of California coastline, killing sea birds and other wildlife. Oil industry pollution and oily wastes were part of the Cuyahoga River concoction as well, described by Time magazine as being ‘chocolate-brown, oily, [and] bubbling with subsurface gases.’ In fact, it was the Time magazine story that helped bring national attention to the Cuyahoga River and nearby Lake Erie into which it flowed, both of which became poster images for the severe water pollution of those times. U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), a promoter of the first Earth Day in 1970, would later invoke the Cuyahoga-in-flames as an example of the nation’s most severe environmental disasters. Carol Browner, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s, would also recall in speeches the impression that images of the burning Cuyahoga had made on her. But the Cuyahoga River fire of June 1969 wasn’t the worst the river had experienced. A 1952 fire – shown in the two photos here – was much worse. Time magazine in its August 1969 story, had used one of those photos, incorrectly attributing it as the 1969 fire. Turns out, there is a long history of Cuyahoga River fires – at least a dozen or more dating from the 1860s – several of which resulted in more damage than the 1969 incident. More on those in a moment. Still, when the June 1969 Cuyahoga River fire occurred, many people found it surprising that pollution could be so bad that a river would burn. That wasn’t supposed to happen. ‘[A] river lighting on fire was almost biblical,’ said Sierra Club President Adam Werbach referring to the Cuyahoga fire during a CNN interview some years later. ‘And it energized American action because people understood that that should not be happening.’ The Cuyahoga’s plight – and particularly its association with oil pollution – caught the attention of singer/ songwriter Randy Newman, who penned a famous song about the river’s tendency to catch fire. …”
Pop History Dig (Audio)
Fact-Checking Five Myths Of The 1969 Fire On The Cuyahoga River
Photo Slideshow: Vintage Collection, Before Clean Water Act
YouTube: Celebrating the Comeback of the Burning River, 1969-2019
YouTube: Burn On


The Cuyahoga River, near the site of the 1969 fire. Now property of Arcelor-Mittal.

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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