Polluted Cuyahoga River Bursts into Flames

The oil-slicked and debris-ridden Cuyahoga River at Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire as a result of industrial and other waste discharges, namely oil. Discharge into the river also included human waste, iron, nickel, sulfates, ammonia, acids, and fluorides. The fire was followed by increased environmental awareness and led to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in late 1970 and to the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Summary of Event

The Cuyahoga River fire occurred at approximately 12:00 noon on Sunday, June 22, 1969. The fire was quickly brought under control, but not before having done some $50,000 worth of damage to two key railroad trestles over the river in the “flats” area of Cleveland. An oil slick on the river had caught fire and had floated under the wooden bridges, setting fire to both of them. Witnesses had reported that the flames from the bridges reached as high as a five-story building. Cuyahoga River
Pollution;United States
Ecological disasters
[kw]Polluted Cuyahoga River Bursts into Flames (June 22, 1969)
[kw]Cuyahoga River Bursts into Flames, Polluted (June 22, 1969)
[kw]Flames, Polluted Cuyahoga River Bursts into (June 22, 1969)
Cuyahoga River
Pollution;United States
Ecological disasters
[g]North America;June 22, 1969: Polluted Cuyahoga River Bursts into Flames[10290]
[g]United States;June 22, 1969: Polluted Cuyahoga River Bursts into Flames[10290]
[c]Disasters;June 22, 1969: Polluted Cuyahoga River Bursts into Flames[10290]
[c]Environmental issues;June 22, 1969: Polluted Cuyahoga River Bursts into Flames[10290]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;June 22, 1969: Polluted Cuyahoga River Bursts into Flames[10290]
Stokes, Carl Burton
Campbell, Bernard E.
Kudukis, Raymond

Chemical waste is discharged into the Cuyahoga River.

(National Archives)

A fireboat, the Anthony J. Celebreeze, Anthony J. Celebreeze (ship) was rushed upstream from its berth in the city’s wharf district and battled the blaze on the water, while units from three fire battalions brought the flames on the trestles under control. The firefighting operation was under the command of Battalion Number 7 fire chief Bernard E. Campbell. The most damaged of the two bridges that burned belonged to the Norfolk & Western Railway Company and sustained $45,000 worth of damage, forcing the company to close its two tracks to all train traffic. The other burned bridge, a one-track trestle, belonged to the Newburgh & South Shore Railroad Company. It incurred an estimated $5,000 worth of damage and was able to remain open to railway traffic.

Responsibility for the oil slick was placed on the waterfront industries, which used the river as a dumping ground for oil wastes instead of reclaiming the waste products. As early as 1951, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported that the Cuyahoga River was so heavily polluted at its mouth as a result of the dumping of industrial effluents that conditions for the existence of aquatic life were unsatisfactory. In September of that year, thousands of dead fish had been washed ashore west of the river’s mouth, and observers noted that the area gave off strong odors. Experiments performed in the field showed that living zooplankton introduced to this water survived for only a short period of time compared to those placed in cleaner lake water.

The International Joint Commission International Joint Commission , a joint U.S.-Canadian government body charged with the management of Great Lakes water, expressed concern, in a 1970 report, with the numerous accidental oil spills in the region. The commission was appalled by the insidious intrusion of vast amounts of oil from the populous and the industrialized communities in the Lake Erie drainage basin. During the late 1960’s, more than one thousand barrels per day of oil and greases were discharged into the Detroit River, the major tributary to Lake Erie. For example, in April, 1969, an estimated 2,300 barrels of cutting oil from one industrial spill on the Detroit River was considered simply another source of oil pollution of the boundary waters between Canada and the United States and did not arouse undue concern.

Oils and greases occasionally appeared as slicks on the water surface, but often they were emulsified into a mixture of mutually insoluble liquids. Typically these pollutants were absorbed into the suspended load in turbid rivers and were deposited as sediment in the river mouths and in the lake. Such was often the situation in Cleveland Harbor, where it was estimated that 17,600 tons of oil and grease were included in the 660,000 tons of solids (dry weight) removed from the Cleveland Harbor navigation channels during the 1966-1967 dredging operations. These pollutants were dumped by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into Lake Erie only a few miles offshore.

The Cuyahoga River divides the city of Cleveland into an east side and a west side. The river originates in springs in the Appalachian Plateau highlands of Geauga County, about 35 miles east of Cleveland, but because of its meanders it has a total length of 80 miles. On reaching Cleveland, about 6 miles from its mouth, it becomes a sharply twisting stream before emptying into Lake Erie. Its mouth forms part of Cleveland’s harbor, and the river is navigable for about 5 miles upstream. Industrial development took place along the river in the early 1800’s, and by 1860, docks and warehouses lined the ship channel. Industry had claimed virtually all of Cleveland’s riverfront by 1881 when, according to then Cleveland mayor Rensselaer R. Herrick Herrick, Rensselaer R. , the discharge from factories and oil refineries made it an open sewer through the center of the city.

In August, 1968, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration Federal Water Pollution Control Administration reported that the lower Cuyahoga River and navigation channel throughout the Cleveland area was a virtual waste-treatment lagoon. At times, the river was choked with debris, oil, scums, and floating organic sludge. Foul-smelling gases were often seen rising from decomposing materials on the rivers. Viewed from the observation deck of the Terminal Towers, the tallest building in the city, the river appeared to be chocolate-brown or rust-colored. The lower section of the river had no visible life, not even pollution-tolerant life-forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.

The inadequately treated wastes from the Cleveland Southerly Treatment Plant Cleveland Southerly Treatment Plant and numerous storm-water overflows and sewage bypasses discharged large quantities of oxygen-demanding wastes and bacterial contamination, including several species of human pathogens, to the lower river. These domestic wastes were joined by the discharges from the major industrial complex in the flats area of Cleveland. Republic Steel, U.S. Steel, and Jones & Laughlin discharged solids, iron, oil, sulfates, ammonia, acids, and other deleterious materials. Harshaw Chemical Company discharged solids, nickel, fluorides, and acids. Research Refining, Ford Motor Company, Modern Tool and Die, Bedford Gear, Morce Company, B. F. Goodrich, Firestone Tire & Rubber, and Goodyear Tire discharged uncontrolled amounts of oil into the Cuyahoga River. These conditions led national magazines to brand the Cuyahoga River as one of the most polluted rivers in the United States.


Firefighters combat the flames on the Cuyahoga River.

(James Thomas/Courtesy, Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library)

The railroad trestles that burned in 1969 were not all that sustained damage in the fire. Cleveland’s reputation as “the best location in the nation” was severely damaged by the occurrence. The city became the brunt of numerous jokes that characterized Cleveland as the only city with a river so choked with pollution that it had burned. Mayor Carl Burton Stokes was criticized for being too lax on river polluters. Ironically, another oil slick had burned on the Cuyahoga River in 1952, causing an estimated $1.5 million damage without attracting national attention.

No river in the United States had a more notorious national reputation than the Cuyahoga River as it flowed through Akron and Cleveland on its way to Lake Erie. The name Cuyahoga, meaning “crooked waters,” was given to the river by the Erie Indians. By 1969, the Cuyahoga River had attracted considerable attention to the need for pollution regulation, and as a result the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed in 1970 and the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Within two years of its formation, the EPA had issued grants to seventeen municipal sewage treatment projects in the Cuyahoga River basin.

In the early 1970’s, a general approach to solving the pollution problems of the Greater Cleveland area, including the lower Cuyahoga River, was formulated and factored into a regional plan to clean up Lake Erie. Industrial sources of pollution were abated to some degree through various approaches, either by in-plant treatment or by channeling the wastes to the municipal sewer system for treatment. Sewers and interceptors were enlarged to handle these flows and local flooding. At the same time, the new or upgraded waste-treatment plants were constructed to handle and better treat the increased flow.

In July, 1972, the Cleveland Regional Sewer District Cleveland Regional Sewer District (CRSD) was formed, which consisted of Cleveland and thirty-three of its suburbs in Cuyahoga County. Raymond Kudukis was appointed as the founding president of the board of trustees of the CRSD. The district was created to cut across political boundaries and jurisdictions; therefore, it was in a unique position to be able to plan anti-water-pollution projects without the concern of being stymied by local political considerations. The sewer district took over the operation of Cleveland’s three major sewage treatment plants, which together treated 300 million gallons of wastewater per day. Immediate projects included upgrading the treatment plants and improving the collection system with an extensive network of sewers, trunk lines, main lines, and intercepts. These measures were taken to meet the standards set by the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendment Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendment (1972) of 1972, which called for achieving advanced wastewater treatment.

By 1980, the visible oil that made the Cuyahoga River a fire hazard had nearly disappeared. As testimony, in 1967 a reporter from a Chicago newspaper dunked his hand into the river and pulled it out coated with oil, but ten years later he dipped it in again and it came out oil-free. Biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), cyanide, and phenol levels were also down. The Cleveland Utilities Department issued a report in 1980 stating that phosphorus levels were half of what they had been a decade earlier and that nitrogen levels had also dropped substantially. These two nutrients were identified in the 1960’s as the culprits responsible for the overfertilization of Lake Erie and the massive growths of algal scums along the shore.

In 1980, however, dissolved oxygen levels were still low. The abundance of life-giving oxygen in the water is a prime measure of the health of a river. Some debris and sewage still floated on the river’s surface. During the 1980’s, new sewage systems were brought on line in Akron and at Cleveland’s Southerly Treatment Plant, and more improvements were observed in the water quality of the Cuyahoga River.

The burning of the Cuyahoga River was a symbol of the state of affairs in the lower Great Lakes. This relatively minor incident turned into a major media event that instigated cleanup programs in Lake Erie. Cuyahoga River
Pollution;United States
Ecological disasters

Further Reading

  • Ashworth, William. The Late, Great Lakes: An Environmental History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. An account of the environmental degradation that has occurred in the Great Lakes and attempts to restore them. Covers in detail the 1969 burning of the Cuyahoga River.
  • Barry, James P. The Fate of the Lakes: A Portrait of the Great Lakes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1972. This abundantly illustrated book documents the vital ecological concerns faced by Canada and the United States in managing the Great Lakes. Navigation on the industrial lower reach of the Cuyahoga River is given special attention.
  • Burns, Noel M. Erie: The Lake That Survived. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1985. Traces the impact of human presence on Lake Erie from precolonial times to the late twentieth century. Illustrates how indiscriminate dumping of waste into the waters of the lake made them one of the worst cases of environmental degradation.
  • Ellis, William D. The Cuyahoga. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. Traces the commercial and navigational history of the Cuyahoga River from the early settlement period to the industrial growth of the mid-twentieth century. Contains numerous human interest stories of life associated with the river.
  • Environmental Protection Agency. National Accomplishments in Pollution Control: 1970-1980. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1980. A collection of case histories that describe successful efforts across the United States to clean up or prevent further deterioration of the environment.
  • Gross, Joel, and Lynn Dodge. Clean Water Act. Chicago: American Bar Association, Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources, 2005. A brief legal analysis of water pollution and water quality management in the United States, with a history of the 1972 Clean Water Act.
  • Lore, David. “Cuyahoga River’s Cleanup Reclaims ’Hallowed Ground.’” Columbus Dispatch, October 8, 2002, p. A-07. A very brief article on the slow but steady recovery of the Cuyahoga River, an environmental recovery still in process.

  • Pollution of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the International Section of the St. Lawrence River. Ottawa, Ont.: International Joint Commission (Canada and United States), 1970. Outlines the pollution problems of the lower Great Lakes, including eutrophication, oxygen depletion, bacterial contamination, oil, organic contaminants, radioactivity, and toxic materials in trace amounts. Highlights the sources of oil pollution.

First Water Pollution Control Act Is Passed

Congress Amends the Water Pollution Control Act

Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution

Congress Strengthens Water Laws

Scenic Hudson Case Stops Storm King Power Plant

Soviet Union Declares Lake Baikal a Protected Zone

Pesticide Poisons the Rhine River

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 Is Signed

Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded

Congress Mandates Oil-Spill Liabilities and Penalties

Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of Phosphate-Free Detergent

Environmental Protection Agency Is Created