The Cuyahoga is a long and winding river that empties into Lake Erie after splitting the city of Cleveland into east and west sides. For the longest time, it was treated as a dump and industries along the river emptied their waste matter, even toxic material, into it. As a result, the river used to catch fire periodically. But the fire that erupted 50 years ago yesterday, though not the biggest, for some reason attracted national attention and turned the city into a laughing stock with comedians using it as a punch line. To this day, that is the first association that many people have with the city.
But that fire, awful as it was, had a good result. It galvanized the environmental movement and led to president Nixon signing the National Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Water Act because in those days Congress wasn’t dominated by crazies who thought that protecting the environment was some kind of communist plot to sap the precious bodily fluids of god-fearing Merkins.
It also galvanized the city into doing something about the river and there was a concerted effort by both private individuals and groups and governmental authorities to clean it up it and those efforts have borne fruit. It is now a venue of recreation with people using it for kayaking, canoeing, paddle boating, cruise boats and other water activities, and restaurants and green spaces and towpaths lining its banks where people can relax and enjoy the river. Fifty years ago, there were dead fish floating in the river. Now anglers can fish for walleye and steelhead trout that are safe to eat. (This link has a nice video of the river’s transformational history.)
The river is now a source of community pride and the city now even revels in its history and has even embraced the label of Burning River with an annual two-day celebration called the Burning River Fest.
The revival of the Cuyahoga river is a success story that shows how concerted action can improve the lives of everyone.