The reclamation of the Cuyahoga river

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.


  1. DonDueed says

    The fire of 50 years ago drew attention in part because it came at a time of increased environmental awareness and the ubiquity of television in American homes. Although my family had moved away from the Cleveland area by that time, I remember seeing images of that Cuyahoga fire on the national news.

    Also, Randy Newman’s song inspired by that event raised its profile.

  2. jrkrideau says

    I remember hearing about the burning river from a friend. He and his father were both volunteer fire fighters in a town in New York. There was some laughter.

    It is great to see such a clean–up. It reminds me of the stories of the Thames clean–up but while the Thames was bad but I don’t think it ever caught fire.

    There were some horror stories though.

  3. bmiller says

    Of course, the sad thing is these (needed) laws convinced The Owners (h/t George Carlin) to begin moving offshore much of the heavy industry, ironically enough to COMMUNIST China where worrying about sissy things like burning rivers was not as important.

  4. bmiller says

    Still…a really neat video! Even though I live in a coastal state, there is something appealing about rivers!

  5. Tadas says

    According to the guide from my Cleveland Metroparks riverboat tour I had taken last summer, many US rivers caught fire. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River got national attention apparently because the river fire was featured in the same Time Magazine issue as the moon landing. So I guess a lot of eyeballs saw the article.

  6. Snarlymon says

    To Tadas point, the Flint river in Michigan was one of the rivers that was so polluted that it caught fire. That should have given people second thoughts about using it as drinking water but alas, some people find it inconvenient to learn from history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *