The Cuyahoga River Fire Myth

So, this is where it all started. This is the river that burned. I remember visiting Cleveland last year about this time of year and thinking these thoughts as we walked along the Cuyahoga riverfront.

We all know the story. On June 22, 1969, an oil slick and debris in the Cuyahoga river caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio. This event would become the “poster child” of environmental degradation and some would say the impetus of the American environmental movement. So how bad was this fire?

Here is story that ran on page 11 of the Cleveland’s Plain Dealer:

A burning oil slick floating on the Cuyahoga River caused $50,000 damage to two key railroad trestles at the foot of Campbell Road Hill S.E. about noon yesterday, closing one to traffic.

Ballalion 7 Fire chief Bernard E. Campbell said the fire was reported at 11:56 a.m. and was under control by 12:20 p.m. The burning slick floated under the wooden bridges and set them on fire. Cause of the blaze was undetermined, said Campbell. A fireboat battled the flames on the water while units from three battalions brought the fire on the trestles under control.

Campbell said a bridge belonging to Norfolk and Western Railway Co. sustained $45,000 damage, closing both of its tracks. The other, one-track trestle is open. The fire did $5,000 damage to the timbers of this Newburgh & South Shore Railroad Co. crossing.

Flames climbed as high as five stories, said Campbell. Campbell pointed out a fireboat patrols the Cuyahoga River daily checking for oil slicks and clearing them away. He said waterfront industries are responsible, dumping oil wastes into the river rather than reclaiming them.
So in summary:
  • This Cuyahoga River fire lasted just thirty minutes.
  • The fire only caused 50,000 dollars in damage mostly to a few railroad bridges.
And more importantly,
  • No one has been able to produce a photo of this Cuyahoga fire.
So, how did this event become a legend?
When Time magazine ran a story of this, they used a photo from the 1952 fire on the river. Apparently, there were fires in multiple years. Fires occurred on the Cuyahoga River in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and in 1952. The 1952 fire was actually the worst causing over 1.5 million dollars in damage.
The start of our environment movement was actually propelled using a picture from the previous decade. Humm. What current stories this earth day week could we reuse pictures from the last decade?
Here is the 1952 picture used in 1969.
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  1. Hi! Fellow water engineer here, just discovered your blog via Michael Campana's WaterWired.I'm not sure if I get your point here… That the fire wasn't so bad because it only lasted for 30 minutes and only caused $50,000 in damage? The river was ON FIRE! There were oil slicks on the river every day. That sounds bad enough to me.Perhaps I should write a post about the great Santa Barbara offshore oil spill myth? As far as I know, none of the oil that washed up on the beaches caught fire, so perhaps it wasn't as bad as people make it out to be!

  2. The one thing that was different about the 1969 fire was the mayor. Carl Stokes was the nation's first black mayor of a major city. He inherited a municipality that was in decay. The white middle class had fled, leaving the poor and disenfranchised. Stokes saw the intimate connection between environmental and social conditions. The 1969 fire may not have been the Cuyahoga's worst fire, but he was determined it would be its last fire. So he shone the spotlight of the national press upon the Cuyahoga instead of hiding what was happening.

  3. There is more to this: it wasn’t just the still photo (though that is fascinating news — that it was from another fire many years earlier): but there was, I believe, TV news footage as well, that spread across the nation (remember, there were really only three major TV stations then, so many people saw it), together with the fact that (1) the nation was far more primed for environmental awareness in 1969 than previously, so it had a bigger impact; (2) there had been other recent (or were about to be) major national environmental news stories, including the major oil spill off the Santa Barbara, CA coast; plus the new/pending legislation in Congress on air and water. All of these things combined made this an iconic issue.

    • Thanks for the comment. I forgot about this post. I may have to revisit this post sometime.

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