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30th Anniversary of Cuyahoga River Fire

Tuesday, June 22, 1999 at 11:15 AM

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Today is the 30th anniversary of a landmark in Cleveland history. On June 22nd, 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in the Flats. A few days later Mayor Carl Stokes went to Congress and demanded that something be done to clean up the Cuyahoga. No one was seriously hurt in the blaze, but the event captured the nation's attention and made Cleveland the butt of jokes. Outside of Cleveland many still identify the city with the event. But from a historical perspective, the fire goes down as a major impetus for the modern environmental movement. More from Infohio's Ley Garnett.

Ley Garnett- A cruise ship that docks in Cleveland makes two daily trips down the Cuyahoga. Significantly, the narrator of the tour makes no mention of the 1969 fire.

But John Grabowski, research director of the Western Reserve Historical Society, says the fire will always be noted as a seminal event of the sixties.

John Grabowski- And I think sort of the paradox of a body of water on fire, that’s what everybody thought was amazing, some people thought it was humorous, but nevertheless, it was a small fire. It did about $50,000 damage to two railroad trestles, but it became part of the Cleveland legacy if you will—something the city’s been trying to deal with ever since.

LG- Grabowski recalls the river fire from a personal as well as an historic perspective. In 1969 he was a student at Case Western and working part time for a paint company located in the Flats. He remembers a particular incident from that era that points out just how polluted the river was.

JG- I recall when I worked down there as an intern that one of the things that the company used to do was to hang test panels of new paint coatings in the river to see how well they could withstand it. I think that said something on its own. And we ceased to do that one day when the river literally ate through the wire that the panels hung on.

LG- It wasn’t that the Cuyahoga stood alone as a contaminated river. Former Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson says most other industrial waterways across the country were in a similar condition.

Gaylord Nelson- Pollution was rampant in all kinds of rivers all across the nation. Industries just poured surplus oil and grease and so forth right into the rivers, so there was bound at some time to be a dramatic fire and this turned out to be the most dramatic one of all.

LG- Nelson, who now serves as an advisor to the Wilderness Society, says the Cuyahoga River fire galvanized the environmental movement in Congress. But it wasn’t the only graphic environmental calamity that year. A few months earlier there was a disastrous oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Eric Olsen, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the Cuyahoga fire was one of a series of events that seemed to converge on the national consciousness.

Eric Olsen- There were rivers all over the country that were so severely polluted that you couldn’t even get close to them without risking your health and you know seeing a fire catch on top of a river was another issue that really hit home and ultimately we got the Clean Water Act enacted a couple years later.

LG- Coincidentally, the Ohio EPA this month announced a plan to try to bring the Lower Cuyahoga River into compliance with the federal law that the fire provoked. But, historian John Grabowski, says in terms of Cleveland’s pride, the fire no longer stings.

JG- I don’t think it hurts anymore. It’s part of the image of the city as something that’s in the past. We can live with it and I think the reason it doesn’t hurt any more is because if somebody would come up to a Clevelander and say: “Well your river burned,” the first thing they would do is probably take them down to the river, show them what’s going on down there and say “Look what we’ve done. Have a good time.”

LG- Grabowski says when you go down to the Flats and see people drinking Burning River Ale, you know the city is over the incident. For Infohio, I’m Ley Garnett.

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