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The Shocking River Fire That Fueled the Creation of the EPA

April 22, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Fires were nothing out of the ordinary on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in the 1960s. The city was still a manufacturing hub and the river, which empties into Lake Erie, had long been a dumping place for sewage and industrial waste.

But on June 22, 1969, a spark flared from the train tracks down to the river below, igniting industrial debris floating on the surface of the water. Flames spread across the river, in some places reaching five stories high.

And though it only took about 20 minutes to extinguish the blaze, the not-so-unusual river fire helped create an environmental revolution. Though it initially caught the attention of few Cleveland residents, the Cuyahoga River Fire stoked the rest of the nation’s awareness of the environmental and health threats of river pollution—and fueled a growing movement that culminated in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

A 1967 photograph, showing old cars used as rip-rap along the banks of the Cuyahoga River to protect it from erosion, is held in front the foliage-filled landscape of the river in 2006.

Cleveland had staked its claim as an industrial center in the 19th century, when the Civil War turned the then-small city into a manufacturing powerhouse. As factories and the local population grew, sewage and industrial remnants poured into the river. But, in line with the era’s lax attitudes toward the environment, nobody much cared.

Soon, the river was filthy. “Yellowish-black rings of oil circled on its surface like grease in soup,” recalled František Vlček, a Czech immigrant, of his first view of the river in the 1880s. “The water was yellowish, thick, full of clay, stinking of oil and sewage. Piles of rotting wood were heaped on either bank of the river, and it was all dirty and neglected….I was disappointed by this view of an American river.”

At the time, according to the Property and Environment Research Center, Cleveland sourced its drinking water from Lake Erie and used the river as a sewer. “So municipal authorities left the Cuyahoga River alone—allowing firms along its banks to discharge into it at will,” they write.

Firemen stand on a bridge over the Cuyahoga River to spray water on the tug Arizona, after an oil slick on the river caught fire in 1952.

The waste those firms did discharge turned the river muddy and filled it with oil, solvents and other industrial …read more


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