Cuyahoga River Restoration

(formerly Cuyahoga River Community Planning)

Restoring, revitalizing and protecting the Cuyahoga River watershed and nearshore Lake Erie

2019 • Celebrating 50 years of restoration 
since the last fire on the Cuyahoga River, 
the event that ignited the clean water movement.

This year, we celebrate* the 50th anniversary of the river fire of June 22, 1969, the one that put the Cuyahoga on the national map, sparked the passage of the Clean Water Act, ignited the clean water movement (some will say the modern environmental movement as well) and, unfortunately, gave Cleveland a black eye, which was roughly the color of the oily, pollutant-laden ship channel that includes the last six miles of the hundred-mile-long river.

The comeback of the Cuyahoga has gone hand-in-hand with the city's revival as a place to live, work, and recreate. Today's Cuyahoga River ship channel is host to paddlers, rowers, boaters, cruises, and the big ships that bring ore and materials to the steel mill and industries operating on its banks. Its banks are home to condos, lofts, eateries, and entertainment venues as well as industrial and commercial establishments. There are lots of healthy fish here, and more habitat to support them.

In other words, the Cuyahoga lives!

Just to set the record straight, and to make you the expert at any gathering, some factoids to know as we navigate the year:

  • It was only the industrial channel, those last few miles of the river where it bisects Cleveland, that carried the load of pollution and flammable debris, not the whole river. The other ninety-four miles of the Cuyahoga, as it flows from Burton south to Akron and then north to Lake Erie at Cleveland, was flame-free.
  • The cleanup of the Cuyahoga really began before the last fire, when Frank Samsel built the Putzfrau and began vacuuming up the floating muck, and when then-Mayor Carl Stokes got voters to pass a $100 million bond issue to start cleanup work.
    See Michael Rotman's Cleveland Historical article.
  • The photo that is used most frequently to illustrate the fire was actually that of the 1952 fire, which was much bigger and more photogenic than the 1969 fire. The latter fire was pretty small, and under control before photographers could get to it, so there aren't photos of it.
  • Those who were there at the time say that the '69 fire was started by a spark falling from a train car on the bridge that connected the steel mill facilities which, at the time, were operated by Republic Steel. NOT ArcelorMittal, which operates the plant today.
  • The river in the ship channel is often a lovely shade of beige, not because of pollution but because it holds the sandy sediment that floats down the river. When big ships come through, their thrusters roil up the sediment, most of which is light enough to remain suspended throughout the channel.
  • How did the cleanup happen? Once regulations restricted the discharge of pollutants into the water, new pollution was avoided and old pollutants either washed out or settled into the sediment at the bottom of the channel. Decades of dredging to make the channel deep enough for big ships to pass has removed most of that. That allowed the water quality to improve, which meant a more hospitable environment for life to return.

Yes, celebrate! If not for that fire, and the attention it placed on the serious state of America's rivers, we might have had
to wait many more years for passage of the Clean Water Act, the agency status of the EPA, and the public outcry that, together, set in motion our recovery and the movement for clean water.

*

 

Cuyahoga River Restoration

c/o Cuyahoga River Community Planning
1299 Superior Ave. E • Cleveland, OH 44114
216-241-2414 • info@cuyahogariver.org

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