The notorious 'river that burned' builds a new legacy

When someone knows you’re from Cleveland, it often leads to them asking whether the Cuyahoga River really burned in 1969.

The fire happened more than forty years ago, but it’s hard for outsiders to believe a river can burn by itself. Some people say jokingly, “Cleveland is famous for two things, the ‘burning river’ and LeBron James.” The latter brought glory to the city, but the former badly tarnished the city’s reputation.

Cleveland was well known as a major industrial center of the U.S. in the late nineteenth century, but it was also known as a polluted manufacturing center, largely due to a booming steel industry. The Cuyahoga River, the “mother river” of Cleveland, was polluted by decades of industrial wastes. It has caught fire many times.

The Cuyahoga River is located in northeast Ohio — numerous tribes of Iroquois Indian lived along the river, beginning around 12,000 years ago. Cuyahoga is a Haudenosaunee or Iroquois word, which means “crook,” due to its natural zigzag path and many U-shaped turns.

The U-shaped path is due to the river’s geologic history. About 20,000 years ago glaciers, large masses of ice that moved across the land, carved out a new valley, the Cuyahoga Valley. The Cuyahoga River was formed there about 13,000 years ago.

The Cuyahoga River had a great influence on Native Americans, who used if for thousand of years in their trade routes that reached throughout much of North America, including for food and transportation. During this time, the river started to become commercialized and people living on the river used it to make money.

In 1795 and again in 1803, the Cuyahoga River formed the western boundary of the United States.

The Canal Era

Ohio became the nation’s 17th state in 1803, and in the decades that followed its population boomed. According to data provided by the Canal Visitor Center in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the new state of Ohio had a population of 580,000 residents by 1820. In order to provide cheap transportation and to promote the state’s economic development, Ohioans began to build canals.

Before the canals were built, Ohioans used rivers and overland routes for transportation. Rivers were sometimes unnavigable. “Actually, in 1787, Presidents Washington and Jefferson wanted a canal linking Lake Erie to the Ohio River as part of a national system of canals,” Dr. Kay Amey, a professor in the geography department at Kent State University, said.

“Canals were needed to connect the changing elevation of the river by a system of canals. On January 15, 1812 the idea came up again but the war of 1812 ended the discussion until December 11, 1816. It was brought up again in Ohio, but due to the cost, nothing happened for the next three years, Amey said.

"Finally, in January 1822, the Ohio Legislature passed acts to fund the canal system and the state's public education obligations."

In order to develop the working waterways, Ohio enacted the Ohio Canal Act on February 4, 1825. The law authorized the construction of the canal, the Ohio & Erie.

Randolph S. Bergdorf, director of the Peninsula Library & History Society said “The canal changed people’s lives at that time even for today” and made a huge difference in the state’s productivity. It also made it possible for goods to be delivered relatively close to your house, Amey said. Cities grew up around it and the commerce made Ohio the third richest state in the country.

The Ohio & Erie Canal was destroyed by the 1913 flood in Ohio, which is the greatest natural disaster in the state’s history. It destroyed many dams and homes along the Cuyahoga and the canal. “The flood took out towns and they were rebuilt but the Ohio & Erie Canal was not repaired and it was never used for transportation again. The area is now part of the Cuyahoga National Park and 2.5 million people use the towpath every year, ” Amey said.

According to the Ohio Historical Society, more than 470 people died, nearly 65,000 people were displaced and 20,000 homes were destroyed.

In 1913, The Lake Rockwell Dam and the FirstEnergy Dam, also known as the Gorge Dam, were constructed. A year later, the LeFever Dam was constructed after the 1913 flood destroyed an earlier timber dam just north of its location. During 1914 and 1918, the Mill/Sheraton Dam was constructed to replace a timber dam constructed as early as the 1830s.

As industry boomed in the early 20th century, people accepted without question skies blackened from smokestack emissions and rivers fouled with industrial waste. Large amounts of untreated industrial waste found its way into rivers and lakes, including the Cuyahoga.

The burning river and the pollution years

The largest river fire in 1952 caused over 1.5 million dollars in damage to boats and a riverfront office building. On June 22, 1969, just before noon, an oil slick and assorted debris caught fire under a railroad trestle on the Cuyahoga River. The river burned again, this time capturing national attention, spurring environmental activism and the creation of the Clean Water Act, as well as the federal and state Environmental Protection Agencies.

In 1972, the legislature passed the National Environment Protection Act, which was signed into law. The Clean Water Act, originally called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act when it was enacted in 1948, was significantly reorganized and expanded in 1972, as well. It established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulated quality standards for surface waters.

Americans across our country have witnessed the impact of these measures, including the people of Cleveland, where the Cuyahoga River is cleaner than it has been in a century.

The Cuyahoga River is the “Mother River” of Ohio; it still faces significant challenges in maintaining its industrial identity without sacrificing its entertainment and recreational potential.

In 1974,President Gerald Ford signed an act of Congress to establish the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. It was renamed the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 2000. In 1991, the first RiverDay was celebrated. It is a day long festival of activities celebrating the Cuyahoga River and its watershed. Cuyahoga a "recovering system" and cleanup is supposedly continuing. The RiverDay aims to educate and advise people on the importance of protecting this great river. It encouraged everyone to take part in protecting our lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Tong Guan