The events of June 1969 have come to define both Cleveland and the river. Some Clevelanders have a different story.
By Rebekkah Rubin
On June 22, 1969, a train crossed the Cuyahoga River near the Republic Steel mill in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a Sunday morning, a little before noon. A spark from the train jumped toward the water. The surface of the river—like many others of the era—was smothered in sewage and industrial waste from nearby industry. The spark met an oil slick and caught fire. The Cuyahoga was ablaze.
The Cuyahoga River, which winds its way through northeast Ohio for eighty-five miles before emptying into Lake Erie, had a reputation. TIME magazine wrote that it “ooze[d] rather than flow[ed].” The low-lying area on the shores of the Cuyahoga, known as Cleveland’s Flats, had long attracted industry, and from the nineteenth century onward, Cleveland’s prosperity hinged on the mills and refineries in the area. But a lack of government regulation allowed the plants to lawfully deposit their refuse into the river. That Sunday morning in June marked the climax of a century of legal dumping.
The 1969 fire was not the Cuyahoga’s first. According to Paul Nelson, historian at the Western Reserve Fire Museum in Cleveland, fifteen significant fires raged across the surface of the Cuyahoga in Cleveland, dating back to the nineteenth century. The relatively small 1969 fire had no fatalities and minimal damage, but it captured the attention of the nation. Seven months after the fire, in January 1970, Congress passed the National Environment Policy Act, which helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This also led to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Despite the incredible legacy of environmental activism spurred by the fire, the “Burning River” moniker for the Cuyahoga stuck.
In April 2019, two months before the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 fire, American Rivers, an organization dedicated to protecting the country’s waterways, named the Cuyahoga its “River of the Year.” This would have been unthinkable fifty years ago. For many outside of Cleveland, the fire has continued to define the city. But, as always, the story is more complex than it is often portrayed. I talked with some Clevelanders about the impact and legacy of the fire for the city and beyond.
Joe Mosbrook is a retired journalist who moved to Cleveland in 1967, when he was hired by NBC news.
Mosbrook: [My wife and I] had some small children when we moved here and we found a nice area to live in in Cleveland Heights and I’m sitting in that house today, that same house we moved into. Unlike most other big cities, you can be in a nice neighborhood and be twenty minutes away from downtown work, which was wonderful.
[I was] covering all sorts of news both locally and nationally. We were, at Channel 3, actually an NBC news bureau, and we were providing both radio and television coverage for both the local stations and the radio and TV networks. So we were pretty busy.
He attended the press conference held by Mayor Carl Stokes on June 23, 1969, the day after the fire. (Stokes served as Cleveland’s mayor from 1967 to 1971, and was the first black man to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city.)
Mosbrook: My main job was covering City Hall at the time, covering Mayor Stokes and City Council, but that Sunday of the fire, I was on a radio shift. I was doing a local radio newscast all day. And that fire, as I recall, broke out shortly before noon, and I was on radio and we reported during the day that there was a fire at a railroad trestle in the Flats. It wasn’t a particularly big fire, not a lot of damage, and it was a minor story that day. There were other stories that were more important, I don’t remember what they were, but it was a minor story.
[Mayor Stokes] liked to use the press any way he could. He would have news conferences, and he was smart enough to realize that they were more interesting if you went out somewhere where something was going on or had happened during the news conferences, so he called one down onto that charred trestle down in the Flats. We went there and we walked across it. The trestle was not destroyed; it was charred, but it was still usable. They could still run trains on it—it wasn’t destroyed at all. [We] looked around and he was saying, this is terrible, we should do something about it. He wanted to throw some blame on the state for not properly putting restrictions on the industries that let their pollution flow into the river. The state was to blame for not clamping down and restricting…those various industries, most of them at the time were steel plants, and he wanted some investigation to see why the state let Cleveland down by allowing this oil slick to continually flow into the river.
Edgar Tufts grew up on the East Side of Cleveland and was attending Case Western Reserve University when the 1969 fire broke out.
Tufts: I was born and raised in Cleveland. I graduated from John Hay High School and went to Harry Davis Junior High School. Harry Davis is near Superior Avenue which is north of University Circle where Case Western Reserve is and John Hay, of course, is on Euclid, which is just south of where Case is, across from the art museum. The irony is that being that close geographically to Case, growing up on the East Side, I never set foot on that campus until 1967, because it was kind of understood that, as inner-city kids, we weren’t really allowed to walk through there—even though, of course, much later we realized they were public streets. Even though my high school was within visual sight of Case Western Reserve, when I went there as a student it was just like going to another city even though I was still in Cleveland.
We grew up in an era when Cleveland was one of the top ten cities in the country, [in] population, economically, political influence, and everything else. And of course we had sports teams and all that. [In] the period around [the fire] there were riots in most major cities but we survived that. But there were a series of incidents that led to the transition of the perception of Cleveland…to its “mistake on the lake” reputation and the butt of jokes, you know, a decade or a decade and a half later. The idea that the river caught on fire, that’s an oxymoron—burning water. At the time, it was a national story, and yeah, I remember not only The Plain Dealer and Dick Goddard on Channel 8 talking about it, but it was just all over the country.
Raymond Adams grew up in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland. The predominately African-American neighborhood was the site of six days of uprisings in the summer of 1966, when Adams was in high school. When Ohio Governor James Rhodes brought in the Ohio National Guard, four Hough residents were killed and hundreds were injured.
Adams: Let me say this—I was out there for one day [during the Hough uprisings] and I was more afraid of my mother catching me and killing me than I was of the National Guard killing me. That impacted me more than the fire because that was in my neighborhood.
Adams began attending Case Western a few months after the 1969 fire.
Adams: From my perspective, there was a lot of pride in the city. There was a pride about Mayor Stokes and all. An inner-city kid didn’t have as much of a global perspective of Cleveland. I went to college that year, we had all these people coming in from out of the city of Cleveland, out of the state of Ohio, and them making a joke [about the river fire], and it became more serious to me because I was a Clevelander. It was okay if we tell jokes about it, but it’s not okay because you’re not from here—don’t be telling jokes about my city.
After the fire, Stokes became an advocate for preventing pollution both at the state and federal level. He testified before Congress in the hopes of bringing about federal legislation. His brother, Louis Stokes, was a member of Congress, and joined his brother in this cause.
Mosbrook: I wasn’t really covering the environment. I was covering mostly government and City Hall. Certainly there were things that came up [in the years after the fire]; there were a series of proposals to improve the environment by cutting back pollution, both air and water. It seems to me that air pollution was a bigger deal in Cleveland during the Seventies than water pollution was, because these factories were just spraying forth all sorts of crap from their smoke stacks. Maybe it was a little more visual and more apparent to people, but if you went anywhere near The Flats you saw these factories just spewing out all sorts of pollutants constantly, twenty-four hours a day.
Tufts: Not only was the Cuyahoga polluted but Lake Erie. Fish were dead, you couldn’t swim in many parts of it. We all kind of took the river for granted. Of course it was polluted because you had [steel mills] and everybody else down there on the river dumping who knows what into it, and nobody thought about it.
Jocelyn Travis grew up on the East Side of Cleveland and is now the Conservation Manager for the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100, a campaign to get one hundred cities across the country to run on 100% clean and renewable energy. She became involved in the environmental movement in 2010.
Travis: I am originally from Cleveland, I’ve been in Cleveland all my life except to attend undergraduate school which I did in Montgomery, Alabama, which I think really helped a lot as relates to my interest in civil rights work and advocacy. My whole background has been in community [organizing].
The thing that got me most involved with environmental issues…was working with our national Environmental and Climate Justice Director at the NAACP, Jacqui Patterson. Jacqui came into Cleveland and made me aware of the coal-burning power plant that was [here]. It was just never something that was on my radar, but I found out about how toxic it was and all of the damage it was doing to our community, but especially that immediate area…It was over by the Shoreway, right by the lake, on Marginal [Road]. There’s a high school there as well, which is why we were really concerned, because nobody seemed to understand how toxic that plant was right in their backyard. So we pulled together a coalition of advocates who fought to shut down that coal-burning power plant in Cleveland. And we actually were successful!
The thing that was most interesting to me is that it’s right there by an area we call Gordon Park, and I remember my family used to go to the park all the time when we were growing up, because my brothers used to play baseball over there, and we used to have cookouts over there, and the aquarium used to be there. We used to have a lot of activities right there, and nobody seemed to know what was really going on—especially when I learned those toxic fumes will go up into the air and go right back down into Lake Erie. And of course people were eating the fish from the lake, and you’re talking about these high levels of mercury and lead, and it’s poisoning our community.
Travis explained that environmental issues continue to be a challenge for Cleveland, especially in low-income communities.
Travis: Cleveland has a lot of issues and challenges. The fact that we’re number one in poverty, we’re number two in segregation, the high unemployment numbers. So the focus [for low-income communities] is not clean energy, it’s not something people see as an immediate need, even though lead poisoning in Cleveland [is] higher than [in] Flint, Michigan. But it’s not so tangible that people can touch it or feel it, so they don’t really see it as being a crisis and it is. I think that’s the issue: how we can relate this issue to an average citizen in order to get them engaged and understanding [that] we’ve got to clean this community up as we prepare for a brighter future?
In effect, the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire has served to bring Clevelanders together around issues of public health and shared cultural identity.
Travis: [The environment] is not a black issue or a white issue. It really is an issue for all of us to learn that we’ve got to work together. If it wasn’t for the vision of Mayor Carl Stokes to say, look, we’ve got to put some systems in place so [a river fire] doesn’t happen again and we’ve got to clean up this river—from that, we’re looking at the beginning of the EPA, and we’re looking at the beginning of some really great work that took place in Cleveland and spread nationally. But we’ve got to keep that going. I think that we’re just lax right now in cleaning up our environment and we’ve got to figure out how we can work together to bring about a change in our community.
Mosbrook: I think some Clevelanders are a little chagrined by the idea that this river fire seemed to define Cleveland in a way; that despite all its great attributes, here is Cleveland marred by this one event in a river fifty years ago, even though the river had been burning off and on for years. It was not a big deal, certainly. We were pretty much accustomed to Cleveland, and like any other city, [it] has problems and also very good things about it.
Adams: [Years later], I was doing a project in New York City, and I was walking in Manhattan and saw this sign that said—proudly, by the way—”we carry Lake Erie perch.” For me it felt great to hear that because [it meant] we had somewhat recovered—the Cuyahoga flows into the lake. And I know a lot of friends who have boats and use [the lake] for recreation. [It’s] not only what we breathe and eat and all that kind of thing, but it’s a way of life, it’s a part of Cleveland.
If anything, [the fire] galvanized my love for the city and the fight for the city of Cleveland because at one point it was us against other neighborhoods, and then it became Cleveland against the world. [The fire] became something you defended. I’ll be darned if you’re going to talk anything bad about my city. ■
Rebekkah Rubin is a writer and public historian from Canton, Ohio. Her writing, which you can find at rebekkahrubin.com, has appeared in outlets such as Smithsonian Magazine, The Week, and Electric Literature. She is also Assistant Editor at Belt Publishing.
Cover image of the Cuyahoga river circa 1980 (James P. Blair/National Geographic/Getty Images).
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