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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969

In a previous post, I noted that irony has occasionally moved the world. One favorite example: the high dudgeon inspired by Randy Newman's song "Burn On, Big River." Though the mythology of the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969 may need some debunking -- for instance, Ohio authorities insist it was not a case of spontaneous combustion, and the picture here, run in Time magazine at the time, was of an EARLIER river fire -- the heart of the story (and the song) is true.

On June 23, 1969, Cleveland's oily, contaminated Cuyahoga River caught fire. Flames climbed as high as five stories until fireboats brought it under control. The fire was attributed to wastes dumped into the river by the waterfront industries.

Cleveland at the time was not particularly impressed. The Chief of Police was not called; the regular crew, which was always dispersing oil slicks and watching for river fires, had it under control in under half an hour. The only picture (left), taken after the fire was pretty much out, ran in two local papers the next day, but the only story was brief and buried.

"It was strictly a run of the mill fire"
William E. Barry, chief of Cleveland Fire Department

Jonathan H. Adler:
Burning rivers in industrialized areas were common through the late 19th and early 20th century. Rivers and harbors once burned in Michigan, New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, among other states. The Cuyahoga's first reported conflagration happened well over a century ago. ... Over time, the fire hazard became great enough to threaten local shipping.

Oil and debris on the river caught fire at least a half-dozen times before 1950, often causing substantial damage to docks, ships, and other industrial properties along the crooked river's banks.

A month later, though, Time magazine ran a story with this snarky tone:

Some river! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. "Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown," Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. "He decays."
Time Magazine, August 1969

Though other national media eventually picked it up, my first knowledge of the fire was from Randy Newman's song, and this was true for many others.

"Burn On, Big River" (excerpt)
from the Sail Away album by Randy Newman:

...There's an oil barge winding
Down the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

Cleveland city of light city of magic
Cleveland city of light you're calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
'Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin' through my dreams

Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on
Now the Lord can make you tumble
And the Lord can make you turn
And the Lord can make you overflow
But the Lord can't make you burn

Play this Burn On, Big River mp3 excerpt...

The publicity embarrassed local and government mightily; the increasingly mocked Cuyahoga river, under the "burn on" spotlight, was poster-child for federal clean water legislation which followed.

"The lower Cuyahoga has no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes."
The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration

"The Cuyahoga will live in infamy as the only river that was ever declared a fire hazard."
Congressman Louis Stokes

"I will never forget a photograph of flames, fire, shooting right out of the water in downtown Cleveland. It was the summer of 1969 and the Cuyahoga River was burning."
EPA Administrator Carol Browner

"What a terrible reflection on our city"
Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes

From Before the [Clean Water] Act passed, rivers flowing through urban centers served as convenient sewers for industrial and human wastes. In 1969, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, by then only nominally made out of water, caught fire. Floating oil slicks burned out of control, making national news, inspiring a song (Randy Newman's "Burn On"), and sparking, as it were, public support for clean water.

The once dead Lake Erie into which the Cuyahoga drains now has a $600 million fishing industry (more). The Ohio EPA considers the final forty miles of the Cuyahoga a "recovering system" and cleanup is supposedly continuing.

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At 2:14 PM, Blogger SC&A said...

They will never, ever, live that river fire down.

At 12:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you give me a source on 3rd picture? I'd like to use it in my thesis

bsengel1 at hotmail dot com

At 11:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is an awsome web site

At 3:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i believe the pictures you have up are from earlier river fires, not the '69 fire. see

At 4:05 PM, Blogger melinama said...

Dear anonymous, the first paragraph of my post does say some of the pictures were of earlier fires.

At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the fir was caused by oil, what were they spraying to extinguish the fire?

At 4:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Both good and bad it burned, good because it stirred the government out of their daydreams.

At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thx for the info...
my dad grew up here and its nice to know, and kind of sad... Did any one die?

At 5:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh mi gosh i'm glad i went here! my 7th grade science class r doing a report and me and my partener r doing water polltion on this! this is great info!

At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though not raised in this area, I was born in 1961. I can clearly remember the first "Earth Day" celebration at my elementary school and can also remember how poluted so many water ways were back then. My mother warned me almost daily not to play in the small river (stream) near our house and today, it thrives with fish and wildlife. People born after the clean water act was passed just don't realize how bad things had gotten back then. I think it all happened so slowly that it took something like a "river fire" to wake the country up to what was happening.

At 6:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't wait to use this info for my report

At 5:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My Grandfather, Fire Chief William E. barry, siad the fire wasn't much of a big deal, but it sure did cause a stir.

At 7:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poor People in Clevland...
It must have taken forever to recover any tourism...

At 5:07 PM, Blogger Ben said...

I find this story amusing, disgusting, and unbelievable. Are these pictures in the public domain then? Great writing, by the way, I would like to source this as well. Let me know:

At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great reminder to anyone who does not understand the balance of nature. As a life-long Clevelander, I have been part of the rebirth of the lower wetlands and the continued battle with the river. The Cuyahoga has been laughed and mocked for years due to the fire, but unfortunetly it was just one of many rivers in the Industrial US that was devastated by neglect. If it pushed for change, I am grateful. I find it unfortunate that the country as a whole turned a blind-eye to all of the damage that was being done during the industrial revolution to postWar in the name of progress. Hopefully the Hudson, Monogahalia, Ohio and etc... will continue to join the Cuyahoga in an eventual rebirth. Thanks for posting this story, even though I stumbled on it a couple or years late. It is a great cautionary tale.

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi my name is Michael and I come from New Zealand. My classmates and I are trying to stop pollution in our local river (the Hautapu)While our project may be a bit different to yours it would be great if you could leave a comment with any ideas or suggestions. It would be greatly appreciated!

At 9:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm yet another person using this for a report. that's horrible that a river could burn.

At 1:06 AM, Blogger Stephen Holmes said...

lol... i love this story... being from a polish family, and seeing as how cleveland as a large polish population, we like to joke saying only the polish could light a river on fire... I love this story... its one of many that sets Cleveland apart from many other cities... thus, i love Cleveland!

At 3:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

good issue and report

At 3:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To avoide river polution, don't do any human activities there

At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remembering this all to well growing up in Cleveland and having a 45' Chris Craft to pilot to Jim's Steakhouse, in the flats via the Cuyahoga River. Adding insult to the injuring of Cleveland's reputation; following after the river months later, the newly elect... Mayor Perk of Cleveland hair caught on fire! LMSTTAO!

At 9:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the third photo

Earliest Date Indicated on Photograph November 3, 1952
Photographer: James Thomas
Folder: Cuyahoga River - Fires, Accidents
Copyright Holder: Unknown
Text From Photograph: Jefferson W.3 Fire.

At 8:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's put our heads together and start a new country up
Our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like
Let's try to fill it in, bank the quarry river, swim
We knee-skinned it you and me, we knee-skinned that river red

(chorus 1)
This is where we walked, this is where we swam
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

This land is the land of ours, this river runs red over it
We knee-skinned it you and me, we knee-skinned that river red
And we gathered up our friends, bank the quarry river, swim
We knee-skinned it you and me, underneath the river bed

(repeat chorus 1)

(chorus 2)
Cuyahoga, gone

Let's put our heads together, start a new country up,
Underneath the river bed we burned the river down
This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang,
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

repeat chorus 2)

Rewrite the book and rule the pages, saving face, secured in faith
Bury, burn the waste behind you

This land is the land of ours, this river runs red over it
We are not your allies, we can not defend

(repeat chorus 1)

(repeat chorus 2 2x)

At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting

At 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

come on can we get more infermatsion or more pictures this needs to be refecuterd in time agian to bring attn. to it its really sad.

At 10:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At a public hearing in Riegelwood, NC, for a SOC Permit for International Paper, A gentleman stood up and said, "I don't know what everyone is worried about, it all goes to the ocean...".

At 10:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great site. We loved it for school!!!!

At 4:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)

At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for making this information available. I am a painter with an environmental bent. Running across this article reminds me to remind everyone concerned to re-read Rachel Carson's book "Silent Stream." It is one of the important texts of our lifetime!
I am working on an Ohio History text that will need a photo of the Cuyahoga River burning, and contacting the source as we speak!

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

john h said born and raised in cleveland and yes i remember the fire . we had firemen that were our neighbors , and after the fire and cleanup , if you had fireboat duty, you were being punished , from the fire dept . what a great city otherwise , when i moved to florida the rainbow and wicky washie river made me cry i never seen water like that before . i remember harshall chemical pumping boiling stuff in the canal going to the cuyahouga river it wasent green but it sure was bubily and acidy

At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It must have taken forever to recover any tourism..."

Tourism? Cleveland?


At 12:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The amazing thing is,the river was catching on fire and people thought it was NORMAL! Its amazing how fast people forget. Think of all the people who try to tell us the EPA and the Clean Water Act should be eliminated and pretend that somehow businesses will regulate their own pollution. These things are there for a reason.

At 7:55 AM, Blogger ed said...

Anyone wanting to hear the real story of the river fire, I will send a copy of "After the Fire," by Ed Kelly. It has too many characters to post.

At 9:06 PM, Blogger Reeze Hanson said...

Ed, I would very much like a copy of your "After the Fire" to share with my students. Please send to Reeze Hanson at reezehanson (at) I was an eye witness to the fire as a young woman back in 1969. I would love to read your work. Thanks! College professor in Kansas who grew up in Cleveland.

At 7:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I stood in front of my State Legislators, trying to explain why I wanted to be on the Board which oversees our State Department of Environmental Quality. All I could come up with was " I do not ever want to see another river burn" They looked shocked except for the one legislator who replied, " I too am from Cleveland and yes the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969 "

At 10:59 PM, Anonymous Atrazine Water said...

this crisis is still not something you hear about in the mainstream media of America as water is simply not sexy enough. The real threats to our global water resources through pollution, climate change, water waste,

At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Ed Kelly said...

There is now a Ohio Storm Water Conference that has much information about how things are changing in storm water quantity and quality issues. Check out the Spring date for 2011. I did a presentation on The Cuyahoga River, 1969 to 2010 at this year's conference. If intersted in a copy, email

At 9:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And now we have the republican controlled House and governors wanting to delute and gut the EPA and Clean Water Act! Isnt that just great?

At 6:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first picture in the article is from the Cuyahoga River fire of 1952, not the 1969 fire. Just thought you should know.

At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Ed Kelly said...

Yup, there was no pictures that anyone could find of the last fire in 1969. I wrote the After the Fire article and worked on the Cuyahoga and other Cleveland area streams for the City of Cleveland Water Pollution Control for 6 years after the fire.

At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Ed said...

Yup we knew that. I don't think that there was any photos as the fire was put out quickly

At 1:04 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Is it still possible to get a copy of After the Fire? Thank you


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