This 103-mi (166-km) long tributary of Lake Erie is a classic industrial river, with, however, one monumental distinction: it caught fire–twice. The first fire, in 1959, burned for eight days; fireboats merely spread the blaze. Typical of the times, a November 1959 article in Fortune seemed to glorify the industrial pollution here, with words and a portfolio of drawings reminiscent of Charles Dickens. Inspired by feelings of space and excitement, the artist stated: "It is a great expanse, with a smoky cast over everything, smudged with orange dust from the ore–an overall brown color." Clevelanders consoled themselves that the foul water at least symbolized prosperous times.
The second fire occurred on June 22, 1969, as several miles of river along the lowland industrial section called "the Flats" ignited, fed by bunker oil, trash, and tree limbs trapped by a bridge 6 mi (9.7 km) upstream. This fire, along with the Santa Barbara oil well blowout, provided graphic television images which were projected around the world. Jack A. Seamonds's June 18, 1984 article in U.S. News & World Report credited the fire with lighting "the fuse that put the bang in the nationwide campaign to clean up the environment." Pamela Brodie described it in the September-October 1983 issue of Sierra as "The most infamous episode of water pollution in the U.S...It inspired a song...and the Clean Water Act."
Although the fire badly hurt Cleveland's image, steps were already underway to correct the problem. The city government had declared the river a fire hazard and won voter approval in the autumn of 1968 for major funding to correct sewage problems. After the fire, Cleveland's three image-conscious steel companies voluntarily quit dumping cyanide-laced water and two installed cooling towers. As a result of just these actions alone, the river once again began to freeze in the winter. The city of Akron banned phosphate detergents , and eventually won the lawsuits brought against it by soap companies. These and other efforts, plus completion in 1983 of the major sewage treatment project, brought about far more encouraging reports.
The Cuyahoga was formerly dumping 155 tons of waste per day, and was even devoid of sludge worms. But by 1978, Business Week could report substantial improvement: phosphates were cut in half; chemicals were down 20–40%; and oil spills went from 300 per year to 25 in 1977. For the first time, local residents saw ducks on the river. By 1984, point source pollution had been largely eliminated. The waterfront was rediscovered, with restaurants and trendy stores where once fires had burned
The water is still light brown, churned up by deep-water shipping, and Lake Erie is still polluted. Nonetheless, the Cuyahoga seems to have been largely redeemed, and thus helped revitalize the city of Cleveland. The river became one of 14 American Heritage rivers in 1998.
[Nathan H. Meleen ]
Brodie, P. "The Clean Water Act; New Threats From Toxic Waste Demand Stronger Law." Sierra 68 (September-October 1983): 39-44.
Lawren, B. "Once Aflame and Filthy, A River Shows Signs of Life." National Wildlife 28 (February-March 1990): 24.
Seamonds, J. A. "In Cleveland, Clean Waters Give New Breath of Life." U. S. News & World Report 96 (18 June 1984): 68-9.
Wood, W. "Ecological Drums Along the Cuyahoga." American Education 9 (January 1973): 15-21.