“Almost every great city has a river,” the story on Page 41 of Time Magazine began. “The poetic notion is that flowing water brings commerce, delights the eye, and cools the summer heat. But there is a more prosaic reason for the close affinity of cities and rivers. They serve as convenient, free sewers.”
The story, in the August 1, 1969 issue of Time, called out the Potomac, Missouri, Hudson, Milwaukee, Monongahela and other major American rivers. But “among the worst of them is the 80-mile long Cuyahoga,” the writer pronounced.
The next paragraph begins: “No Visible Life. Some river! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with sub-surface gases, it oozes rather than flows. ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays.’ The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: ‘The lower Cuyahoga has no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.’ It is also — literally — a fire hazard. A few weeks ago, the oil-slicked river burst into flames and burned with such intensity that two railroad bridges spanning it were nearly destroyed.”
Peter Bode, Central Lake Erie Basin Project Manager for West Creek Conservancy, says that scientists counted nine fish in the Lower Cuyahoga River in 1969. Not nine species — nine individual fish.
June 22 will mark the 50th anniversary of that fire on the Cuyahoga River. Today, Bode says, there are 60 species of fish in the river between Akron and Cleveland. Earlier this year, officials announced that it is no longer unsafe to eat those fish. Scores of people will take kayaks, inner tubes and canoes on the water this summer.
“I don’t think anybody from 1969 could even imagine that we would be at the point where we are 50 years later,” Bode says. “The ecology is back to the same level, if not better, than any other industrialized and urbanized watershed in the Great Lakes, if not the country.”
“People think ‘Cuyahoga,’ people think ‘fire,’” Bode adds. “But if you really look at what that did — that put a fire under the residents and the professionals around here to really make it into something that they can be proud of.”
The 1969 fire was fortuitous, says Arrye Rosser, an interpretive and education specialist at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It wasn’t the first or largest fire on the river. But it happened just a few months after an oil spill in Santa Barbara, which had touched off a national conversation about pollution. Plus, Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes was the first Black person to serve as mayor of a major U.S. city. He used his media attention to shine a light on problems like industrial pollution, Rosser says.
Locally, people had already been worried about the health of the Cuyahoga River for decades, according to Rosser.
“When [residents] petitioned back in 1921 for the creation of Summit Metro Parks, it was in their minds that we could protect the valley, not just the river. But they knew that they needed to clean up the river — not because they were environmentalists, necessarily, but because it was so disgusting,” Rosser says. A paper mill on the river had to shut down in the 1920s because the water was too polluted for the mill to use. “They were concerned about a lot of the issues we’re concerned about now in the ‘30s,” she says.
But after 1969, Congress passed the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency were established. In 1974, Gerald Ford created the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area on land Bode describes as “a dump and some other horribly degraded area.” Today, that land is Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
“A detailed EPA study concluded several years ago that, even with the implementation of all planned pollution controls, the Cuyahoga will still be able to support only the most pollution-tolerant forms of life,” the EPA noted in 1980, according to documents Rosser has found. “Nevertheless, conditions have improved so markedly that plans are underway to build parks and green strips along the river’s banks.”
Subsequently, the U.S. and Canada have identified dozens of watersheds around the Great Lakes as “areas of concern.” “Millions and millions of dollars” have poured into restoring the Cuyahoga as a result, Bode says.
According to the authorities who oversee the Areas of Concern, there are still seven “beneficial use impairments” in the Cuyahoga watershed. Those impairments are removed one by one as the watershed meets certain standards. That’s what happened in March 2019 when the Ohio EPA said it was safe to eat fish from the Cuyahoga, Rosser explains: That BUI was removed, meaning Cuyahoga fish are no longer any more dangerous than fish from any other industrialized river.
As the river gets healthier, the communities around it are embracing it more and more, Rosser and Bode say.
The Strategic Action Plan that Cuyahoga Valley National Park began preparing in 2015 focuses on the river and the watershed. The plan envisions that, “in 2021, the Cuyahoga River Watershed, its metropolitan communities, and Cuyahoga Valley National Park are international symbols of human and ecosystem renewal.”
A coalition of regional partners is developing a Cuyahoga River Water Trail, which will create maps and other resources for paddlers. Rosser likens the Water Trail to the Towpath, in that “when we look back in 10 years, we’re going to look back and think it’s a regional game-changer.”
And Bode is currently organizing XTinguish Celebration, a yearlong jubilee for the Cuyahoga. Its centerpiece is TorchFest, during which people who have worked to clean up the river will carry a torch from the river’s headwaters in Geauga County on June 19 to its mouth in the Flats west of downtown Cleveland on June 22. Sharon Day, an Ojibwe water walker from Minnesota, will lead the march.
“People have done some remarkable things. We shouldn’t be ashamed that our river burned; other rivers burned. What we did was clean it up — and we cleaned it up and cleaned up the rest of the world. We created a legal framework that helped inspire all that, that then cleaned up everyone else’s rivers too,” Rosser says.
“And we still care. Over 300 organizations celebrating this anniversary is really kind of bananas,” she adds. “It’s messy to figure out how to do it, but I am excited because of all the connections everybody’s making with each other and how everybody’s talking to each other. I don’t think it’s a one and done. We’ve had 50 years. We have another 50 years. What are we doing next?”
Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.
Archival photos from the Cleveland Public Library/Photograph Collection. Contemporary photos by Jarett Theberge.