Adventures written by the VAMONDE Team
Although the 1969 fire is the incident that finally launched environmental regulations such as the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire a total of 13 times with the first incident recorded in 1868. During the rise of industry in the second half of the 19th century, the river was essentially an open sewer flowing through the middle of the growing city. Nobody was planning for the future, and neither developers nor politicians were concerned about the environmental impacts of their activities. In 1912, the fire in the river killed five people. Another fire in 1952 caused $1.3 million in damages. For a century, the river collected oil, debris, runoff, and raw sewage.
The 1969 fire was different. It finally gained an audience. According to the Allegheny Front, a Western Pennsylvania Public Radio program covering local environmental issues, Time magazine covered the fire a few months after it occurred and featured an image from the 1952 fire. This placed Cleveland and its water issues at the forefront of the American mind, and the Cuyahoga became the beloved spokes-river of the emerging ecological movements of the 1970s.
Half a century later, the river ecosystem has vastly improved. Since 2006, at least one pair of bald eagles has been spotted nesting at the river after 70 years of absence. 40 species of fish live in the river, even fish that are sensitive to pollution. Although parts of the river still have unhealthy levels of sewage, the Cuyahoga is evidence that with effort and attention, even the most severe environmental disturbances are repairable.
The Great Lakes Brewing Company, located near the West Side Market in Ohio City, recently updated their Burning River Pale Ale recipe. The brewers now incorporate locally-sourced hops and malt into their classic beer. Burning River Pale Ale, inspired by the 1969 burning of the Cuyahoga River, is celebrated as a commemoration of ecological renewal and as a symbol of the need to protect natural resources and environmental health.
Cover image: "Cuyahoga River Boardwalk" by EddieS licensed under CC BY 2.0.