Burn On, Big River

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire

On June 22, 1969 — 40 years ago — the Cuyahoga River caught fire.  It was, I think, the third time that had happened over the years.  People will say, in retrospect, that the fire helped to increase environmental awareness, led to the passage of the Clean Water Act and various environmental regulations, and therefore ultimately was a positive thing.  As a kid growing up in Akron at the time, I didn’t think about any of that stuff.  It was just another black eye for Cleveland and northern Ohio, and it hurt to hear comedians make jokes about the city.  But, who could blame them?  What could be more outlandish than a river catching fire?

I knew that the river was a mess, because I had visited it with my Akron City Schools grade school class for a cruise on the Good Time II.   The river smelled horrible and looked horrible; it was a black, oily mess that flowed sluggishly and was chock full of debris.  At one point on our cruise we passed a police boat that we suddenly realized was fishing a dead body from the river.  The teacher made us all go to the other side of the boat so we wouldn’t see it.

The PD has a good story today about the fire and its aftermath.  The picture of the man’s oily hand reminds me of the Good Time II cruise.  Interestingly, the river story has a happy ending; the regulations have worked, the river is clean again, and is the home to fish and the site of pleasant recreational activity.  But, when many people think of the Cuyahoga River, they will think of Randy Newman’s Burn On, which provided the title for this posting.  The facts have changed, but the city’s embarrassment still lingers.

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