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HISTORY: Wait, the Cuyahoga River burned HOW many times before 1969?

Two men wearing life jackets on a small boat on Lake Erie, 1976. Both the boat and the men are covered in oil polluting Lake Erie. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Library Division of Special Collections.

When the oozing Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, consider that it might not have even made the “Top 10” list of Cleveland river fires at the time.

A spark ignited pollution on the Crooked River 46 years ago today—June 22, 1969—but few realize that it actually was the thirteenth time it had happened.

Thirteen times. Take that in for a moment. The river had once been so polluted and abused since the 1860s that tar-black layers of filth burned on its surface on at least 13 other occasions.

Cuyahoga River fire, 1948. Courtesy CSU Library
Division of Special Collections.

And the 1969 fire was mild compared to its predecessors. It was extinguished even before photographers arrived (a photo you may frequently see is actually from 1952) and it caused a “measly” $85,000 in damage. Compare that to a 1912 blaze that killed five men and resulted in almost $1 million worth of damage.

The Cuyahoga River fire we remember holds a special place in Cleveland’s history. The punchline of jokes and a lasting symbol of environmental neglect, the Crooked River’s blaze of 1969 was a symbol of damage done, despite the fact that many actions had already began improving our nation’s water resources.

Over the last five decades, the stream’s ongoing resurrection is a testament to the work and people that brought it back to life, and a reminder of how easily it can be taken for granted.


In 1881, the Mayor of Cleveland called the Cuyahoga River “an open sewer through the center of the city.” As manufacturing and population boomed, human waste and industrial sewage had been spewing into the river and Lake Erie for years, a problem which plagued the region and its residents into the 1960s.

Easterly Sewage Treatment Works construction, 1932.

While Northeast Ohio’s first wastewater treatment efforts began in 1908, helping reduce pollution entering our waterways, much damage had already been done by industries that continued to dump hazardous wastes directly into the lake and river.

The result could be seen and smelled along the lakefront. The combined wastes left waterways almost uninhabitable for aquatic life, and the suffocating muck on the surface of the water was extremely flammable. Between 1949 and 1961, the river caught fire at least four times, leading up to the historic June 22, 1969 blaze that sparked local and national attention.


Stokes News Conference, 1969: Mayor Carl Stokes
talks to reporters near the site of the
Cuyahoga River fire in 1969. Image courtesy
of Cleveland State Library Special Collections

Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major city when elected in 1967 and a long-time advocate for environmental responsibility, criticized the federal government and vowed to fight for a cleaner river. The next year, things started changing.

The blaze inspired the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, and in Ohio, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which would take responsibility for the wastewater treatment needs of Greater Cleveland. This included clamping down on industries that illegally discharged waste into the lake and river, important work that continues to this day.

In 1972, the Regional Sewer District assumed control of Cleveland’s wastewater treatment plants, and has since invested billions of dollars in their improvement, and in new facilities and sewer construction. It has made a difference, preventing billions of gallons of sewage from polluting Lake Erie every year, and progress over the next 20 years—above ground and under ground—will bring it down by billions more.

Once declared “dead” by national media, the Cuyahoga River now boasts more than 60 different species of fish, has been found to be a home of freshwater mussels, and has been resurrected from negligence to elegance.

As agencies, businesses, and citizens continue to appreciate and protect our natural resources, Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River will continue to improve. May the only thing left burning on the Cuyahoga River today be our desire to do better.

John Baden, wikipedia.

—Much of this post originally ran on June 12, 2014. Michael Uva and John Gonzalez