The Legacy of Cleveland's Burning River: 50 Years Later

Last night I ventured downtown with one of my oldest friends to attend Cleveland’s annual Burning River Festival on the 50 year anniversary of that infamous day when the Cuyahoga River caught fire - June 22, 1969. Proceeds from the festival support The Burning River Foundation, dedicated to improving, maintaining and celebrating the vitality of Northeast Ohio’s regional freshwater resources.

My friend and I grew up in Cleveland, and have long suffered others’ less-than-generous opinion of our city, opinions often bolstered by the infamous river fire. What most people don’t realize - and something I wish I knew when living in Chicago and encountering these opinions more often - is that Cleveland was far from the only city to experience these river fires in the early 20th century. Thick, oily sludge and pollution had caused multiple fires in the Chicago River, Buffalo River and Michigan’s Rouge River. The 1969 blaze in Cleveland wasn’t the first for the Cuyahoga, either, but it wasn’t until horrific image of flames rising from the waters ended up in TIME magazine and the cover of National Geographic that the nation took notice.

The public outrage resulting from these images forced politicians to take action, and it’s no coincidence that the following year saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the first federal bureau to oversee pollution regulations, as well as the first National Earth Day observance in April. The images and subsequent political action also contributed to the passage of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

I can’t stress enough how inspiring and motivating it is for me to realize the massive role my city played -albeit unwittingly - in some of the most impactful environmental efforts made by our government in the last century. Today, Clevelanders spend summers boating along the river or enjoying food, music and festivals at river or lakeside venues in The Flats, Whiskey Island and Edgewater Park. The name “Burning River” or some similar variation, has been attached to locally-made beers, coffee shops, jams and more.

We’ve turned this pain point into a point of well-deserved pride and created a legacy to inspire future generations. I hope our history only continues to fuel the fire (pun intended) of environmental action in government.

Bonnie Culbertson