My friend, Aaron, was a high school junior at Cleveland, Ohio in 1969. He remembers how his fellow Clevelanders used to ridicule the nasty Cuyahoga river. The Cuyahoga oozed its way through the city, brown with oily, bubbling goo. The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration once noted that the lower Cuyahoga had no visible forms of life.
Cuyahoga is the Iroquoi name for “the crooked river” that winds its way through Northeastern Ohio. The two branches of the short river emerge from fresh water springs that come together as the main Cuyahoga. The river cuts through forests and farmland. When it reaches the Akron vicinity, it meets a continental divide that forces a northwesterly flow.
This stretch from Akron to Cleveland is the lower Cuyahoga where the Ohio & Erie Canal ran parallel to it. This section of the river has been the home to intense industrial activity lining the banks. For decades, chemical works, oil refineries, and steel plants dumped waste into the waters.
Following the American Civil War, Standard Oil of Ohio began buying up competitors and consolidating properties. There were at least 20 oil refineries near Cleveland. Before uses were found for many of the unused portions of crude oil, the material was simply dumped into creeks and rivers. The ground and riverbeds were saturated with it.
The first of the infamous fires began on February 2, 1883. Northeastern Ohio had experienced a combination of warmer tempertures and strong rainfalls that melted snow cover. All of this water caused widespread flooding of Cleveland and the vicinity. A blaze accidentally started at the Shurmer & Teagle Refinery. Flames spread to waste, petroleum products from Standard of Ohio flowing on the river. As the river burned, large oil storage tanks exploded, one by one, over the next twelve hours. The inferno continued for three days, almost devastating the city of Cleveland.
In later years, other river fires erupted on the Cuyahoga but were much less serious. Then in 1912, leaking petroleum product from a Standard Oil cargo slip ignited as a passing tugboat threw off a spark. Five workers were killed and several boats were burned. Two years later, a Cuyahoga fire once again threatened Cleveland until the wind changed course. Yet more river fires blazed in 1930, 1936, 1948, 1949, and 1951.
Throughout much of 1952, Standard Oil had been accused of causing a two-inch thick oil slick on the surface of the Cuyahoga. In many areas, the slick reached from shore to shore. On November 1, 1952, a major disaster began near the Great Lakes Towing Company shipyard. Soon, the river was engulfed in flames and heavy smoke. The only fortunate aspect was that the fire began on a Saturday afternoon, so only one fatality was recorded.
The 1952 incident was a major turning point regarding the health of the Cuyahoga and other waterways in the US. There was already some measure of pollution control law on the books, but effective enforcement was hampered by a lack of allocated money. The unenforced laws did nothing to remedy the status of the Cuyahoga as one of the worst rivers in the nation.
Finally, on Sunday, June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River ignited yet again. The oily debris slick caught fire near the Republic Steel plant. A spark from an overhead train is recorded as the cause. The flames made their way very quickly to railway bridges and trestles. A fireboat was used to control the direction of the blaze and fire crews from three battalions fought fires on the bridges and trestles.
The 1969 Cuyahoga fire coupled with a massive spill from a Unocal Oil Company off shore rig in January of that year near the coast of Santa Barbara, California led to public environmental action by the federal government. US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin also used the example of the 1969 incidents to help promote the first Earth Day in 1970.
Indeed, my friend, Aaron, was one of many Cleveland area youth and activists who had been working on neighborhood campaigns to drum up support for an overall Cuyahoga River clean up. His small group finally gained the reenforcements it needed when the rest of the nation became aware of the seriousness of pollution.
The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire only burned for about 30 minutes, but it sparked the eventual passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Aaron is quick to dismiss accusations by anti-regulatory radicals that the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire was only a myth. He was a witness to the flames and smoke on the water flowing through Cleveland, Ohio, 45-years-ago, today.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Rachel Carson. “In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.”