Burn on, big river

1952 cuyahoga river fire

The 1952 Cuyahoga River fire, a much more serious event, has historically been confused for the 1969 fire after Time Magazine used this image to bring attention to the nation’s environmental issues. In reality, the 1969 fire was a relative nonevent, and no one even had a chance to take a picture of it (courtesy of Teaching Cleveland).

Forty five years ago today, the Cuyahoga River caught fire (for the 13th time). While this was nowhere near the largest or most substantial of those dozen fires, it did prove to be the most significant historically. The attention the fire gained combined with other significant environmental disasters – including the 1969 San Bernandino oil spill – to help catalyze action. The 1969 fire contributed directly to the passing of landmark environmental legislation, including the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. Today, the Cuyahoga River has largely recovered from the dark days before 1969. While it may not be pristine, it’s also not an open dump for every sort of toxic and organic effluent you can imagine. They used to say that you could tell what color paint Sherwin-Williams was producing by looking at the river. Now, the fish are back, the Scranton Flats Towpath is about to open, and members of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation can be seen passing up and down the bends of the crooked river on a daily basis. In some ways, we should all be thankful for that 1969 fire. It came at the right time to produce real, positive change. But, fortunately, these days, the Big River burns on only in our memories.

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