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When the Cuyahoga River Burned

When the Cuyahoga River Burned

Paine Falls Waterfall in Ohio

By Luke Carothers

Cutting through the heart of Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, the Cuyahoga River once served an important role in the industrial development of the United States.  In 1827, engineers changed the course of the river, creating a man-made mouth that provided easy access from the river to the port.  To further support growing industry, the Corps of Engineers also dredged the bottom of the river West of Cleveland and straightened riverbanks in portions.  This, as well as the river’s close proximity to the Ohio & Erie Canal, made the banks of the Cuyahoga prime real estate for railroads and manufacturing companies.  

These transportation networks made Cleveland and Akron incredibly important cities for the time, sitting at the crossroads of many industries that were foundational to the expansion of the United States.  Industrialists and enterprising business owners began establishing factories along the river’s banks.  Companies such as Standard Oil, BF Goodrich, and what would eventually become Quaker Oats used the banks of the Cuyahoga River to launch empires in their respective industries.

As a result, both Cleveland and Akron exploded in their industrial development with little space being left along the river’s banks.  With this influx in both industry and population, local officials had to figure out how to move industrial and sewage waste away from the area.  The most obvious and costly solution was to use the waters of the Cuyahoga.  In the best cases, industrial waste was hauled away on barges that were prone to sinking or otherwise spilling its contents into the river.  In many more cases, industrial waste and sewage were simply dumped straight into the river.  

By 1900, the Cuyahoga River had caught fire no less than three times.  For many residents, this was just the cost of doing business.  It was common knowledge amongst locals that you should not swim in the river if you knew what was good for you.  In this way, the ecological status of the Cuyahoga River has had an inverse relationship with the rise and fall of industrialization along its banks.  

In the late 1950s, industry in Cleveland and Akron began to wane as manufacturers moved their plants elsewhere.  By the start of 1969, Cleveland had lost nearly 60,000 manufacturing jobs, and the loss triggered a sense of urgency to change.  When times were good, the putrid smell and taste of the Cuyahoga River was that of money, but that turned to a medicinal taste as the reality of the future began to set in.  In June of 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the 13th and final time.  

Ignited by sparks from a passing railcar that landed on an oil slick, the Cuyahoga’s final fire only lasted about 30 minutes before being put out by fireboats, and it only caused about $50,000 in damage.  This final fire was only a match flame compared to other fires on the river, but it was enough to spark a movement.  Although the city’s active cleanup measures had begun the year before, the event provided the perfect framing for a larger national conversation about environmental protection.  The following year in 1970, Time Magazine published an article about waterway pollution in America, using a picture from the massive 1952 Cuyahoga River blaze that caused upwards of $1.3 million in damages.

The dramatic image of the Cuyahoga River burning was etched into the public image, and massive efforts began to not only clean up the Cuyahoga, but all of America’s waterways and environmental landscapes.  The same year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established at the federal level to manage environmental risks and regulate environmental policy and action.  By introducing legislation such as the Clean Water Act in 1972, the EPA established a baseline for cleaning up rivers like the Cuyahoga.  

In addition, local agencies stepped in to begin cleaning up the Cuyahoga River.  The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has invested over $3.5 billion towards the river’s purification and sewage infrastructure.  Investments such as this have gone a long way in making the Cuyahoga River safe once again, but areas of the river still experience pollution from urban runoff and other factors.  Yet, in 2019, fish caught in the Cuyahoga River were deemed safe to eat, which would have been unthinkable to a Cleveland resident alive at the time of the last fire.

In 1998, the Cuyahoga River was designated one of 14 American Heritage Rivers, which recognizes not only the cultural significance of the Cuyahoga on the region’s development, but also the further need to revitalize the river ecologically to continue that development.  Once a site of industry, the Cuyahoga River has a vastly different future ahead, drawing more and more recreational visitors every year.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.