Know Ohio: The Burning River and the Start of the EPA

Today, we think of Lake Erie, our North Coast, as a treasured natural resource that really belongs to all of us. Our Great Lake is an important place that provides a trade route for ships, drinking water for over 11 million people, and a fun place for swimmers, boaters, and fisherman. But, just a few decades ago, Lake Erie was declared “dead."

That meant that the lake was extremely polluted – mainly from industries along the shore and Cleveland’s ineffective sewer system. Cleveland was once a much larger city and an industrial powerhouse – with factories producing everything from steel and plastic, to paint and fabric. And, for generations, these factories dumped their byproducts into the lake with very little regulation.

In even worse shape was the river that winds through Cleveland and feeds into Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga River. By the 1960’s, this river, didn’t actually look like water. Some say the river flowed different colors depending on what color the paint factory was producing that day, but mostly it just looked like a dark mix of oil and grease. Of course, there was no swimming in it, and workers along the river were instructed to go directly to the Emergency Room if they fell in. But THIS notorious image changed everything. On June 22, 1969, oil-slicked debris on the river caught fire for about 30 minutes, and the so-called “burning river” brought national attention. Time Magazine picked up the story and this photo of an intense fire on the Cuyahoga River was published alongside the article in 1969 – but it’s actually a photo from a much worse fire in 1952. In fact, what many people outside of Cleveland did not know is that the river had actually caught fire over a dozen times by that point.

Regardless, this image burned into the country’s consciousness – and Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes became a national spokesman for environmental regulation – often speaking before Congress. In 1970, just a year after the fire, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency, which protects the environment by writing and enforcing regulations. And just a couple
years after that, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to stop factories from dumping harmful pollutants into waterways around the country.

It really inspired environmental action, but the infamous burning river photo did not exactly help Cleveland’s image. Cleveland’s unofficial nickname has been the Mistake on the Lake -- and our burning river and dead lake are still the butt of jokes, even decades later. As we start to come out from under that shadow, it’s still important to remember how bad things became, so we never let it happen again.

Instructional Links

Website Article with Audio File & Video: The Allegheny Front, How A Burning River Helped Create The Clean Water Act

Website Article, Videos & Photos: Cleveland Historical, Cuyahoga River Fire

Website: Environmental Protection Agency in Ohio

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