Stop Joking About the Cuyahoga River Fire

Why environmental disasters are not funny.

An oil slick in the Cuyahoga River in 1965. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections via Cleveland Historical.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: On June 22, 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. Well, technically, oil and debris floating on the surface of the water caught fire — the river, which empties into Lake Erie not far from the site of the blaze, had served for more than a century as a dumping ground for the various industrial companies along its banks. The fire wasn’t even the first one, or the worst — in fact, the infamous photo of a burning Cuyahoga in Time magazine two months later was from a previous fire, in 1952, because the 1969 fire was under control before any photographers could arrive.

But that’s not the end of the joke. Not only did the Cuyahoga catch fire multiple times — as many as 13 times, starting as early as 1868 — but rivers in industrial cities all around the country, including those in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Detroit, had a history of bursting into flame. Pollution in these “industrial streams” began in the days of John D. Rockefeller, right around the time Cleveland residents began complaining about the taste and smell of their drinking water; by the point of the 1969 fire, the city, spurred by activism, had already undertaken cleanup efforts that were often stymied by big business.

Hilarious, right?

Most journalists think so. (A recent example from the New York Times: “Cleveland hasn’t been this hot since the 1969 oil fire on the Cuyahoga River.”) It seemed hard, almost impossible, for any 2016 Republican National Convention coverage not to use the river fire for an easy laugh line. The writers were not entirely to blame — after all, there’s precedent. The river has been the butt of jokes for almost 50 years, starting with the Time article about the fire itself: “Some river! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” Major League, the 1989 movie about a Cleveland Indians baseball team sabotaged by its new owner in an effort to move the franchise to Miami, features Randy Newman’s “Burn On” in the opening credits:

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

The jokes about the river extended to the city in general. “Mr. President, how do you plan to keep Russia from invading Poland?” asked the comedian Rich Little at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural gala, before offering his own solution. “I would rename it Cleveland. Nobody wants to go there.”

Firefighters attempt to extinguish the flames of the 1952 Cuyahoga River fire. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections via Cleveland Historical.

But environmental and regulatory catastrophes, in general, aren’t so funny. (Imagine laughing at Flint, Michigan, for its drinking water crisis.) Mocking Cleveland for the fire implies that its citizens somehow deserved it, that they didn’t care about the river or its pollution, that they were too dumbly loyal to their industrial employers — the steel mills, the factories, the oil companies — to complain. But it’s not that simple. Clevelanders knew the Cuyahoga was a problem.

It’s true that Cleveland residents in the early 20th century didn’t fully understand the consequences of heavy industrial pollution — indeed, across the nation at that time, few people did (see: the aforementioned river fires in multiple American industrial cities). But in his 2002 paper “Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing a History of Environmental Protection,” published in the Fordham Environmental Law Journal, Case Western Reserve University professor Jonathan H. Adler examined the ways in which Clevelanders became wary of the river’s pollution in the decades before 1969:

“After the end of the Second World War, local businesses and the Port and Harbor Commission began to agitate for river cleanup. Oil-soaked pilings were seen as a significant threat to boats, port facilities, bridges, and other local facilities….In 1948, the local Chamber of Commerce also proposed regular river patrols to find and clean up oil slicks and other potential hazards. The city’s fire captain submitted guidelines for safe gasoline storage along the river, believing the two dozen or so industrial facilities along the river would comply….Although many companies had taken action to limit oil seepage on the river, others failed to cooperate with fire officials.”

In the years that followed, Cleveland’s business leaders, activists, and journalists also began to demand change, and in 1968, a vote for a $100 million bond issue to finance river cleanup and protection passed by a two-to-one margin. “City officials welcomed the vote, calling it a ‘mandate’ for the city to clean up the river, as well as an opportunity ‘to ask for strict enforcement of state and federal anti-pollution laws,’” Adler wrote.

City councilmen inspect pollution in the Cuyahoga River in 1964. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections via Cleveland Historical.

But officials bickered over who was most at fault for the state of the river, and the bond vote wasn’t the solution Cleveland’s citizens had been hoping for. “The city delayed issuance of the bonds due to unfavorable interest rates and the lack of matching funds from the state and federal governments. The state had apparently expected to provide funding for pollution control projects, yet balked when federal support was not forthcoming. Congress authorized substantial sums for Lake Erie cleanup, but then failed to actually appropriate the money.”

The city blamed the state for inaction, and for not holding businesses along the Cuyahoga with state-issued permits responsible for their waste disposal — and the state blamed the city for not doing more with the resources it had. The federal government, meanwhile, was finally dragged squarely into the fray the following year when the 1969 fire landed the river in the pages of Time; the article, which prompted outrage across the nation, has been widely cited as the catalyst for Congress’s passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

All in all, not a very funny story. But if anyone has earned the right to laugh, it’s Clevelanders themselves, who have embraced the burning river as a weird point of pride and proof of a certain resilience. Great Lakes Brewing Company, located in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood, sells a beer called the Burning River Pale Ale with the description: “A toast to the Cuyahoga River fire! For sparking both a new era of environmentalism and this brazenly hoppy pale ale. Sometimes, one wrong makes two very right rights.”

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