Fifty years ago this summer, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Folks were still talking about it when I moved back to northern Ohio the following year. Oil slick from industrial Cleveland burned for twenty or thirty minutes, sending flames more than five stories high.
The 1969 blaze wasn’t the river’s first or worst. Of thirteen recorded times the Cuyahoga ignited from 1868 to 1969, the fire of 1912 was deadliest (five fatalities) and that of 1952 did the most property damage. What was different in 1969 was historical context. Concern was rising over the dangers of pollution from unchecked industrial growth. National shock over a river catching fire added momentum, leading in 1970 to the first Earth Day and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
How the river has changed! What I once knew as the epitome of pollution has transformed into a place of beauty. Habitat is restored, dams removed, wildlife protected. Bald eagles eat fish from the river. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is calling to me to come visit.
The photo is from the 1952 fire. The 1969 blaze was put out before anyone could take a photo.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.