How Cleveland's Cuyahoga River Helped Give Us the First Earth Day
Published: April 19, 2017
This image of a massive fire on Cleveland's Cuyahoga River in 1952 was used in a 1969 Time Magazine story about a separate blaze that made Americans aware of the dire situation along the waterway.(Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University Library)
In June 1969, after a major Midwestern river actually caught fire, Americans finally began to get serious about the environment.
There were no known photos of the fire on the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland, but one month later, TIME magazine ran a story about the blaze accompanied by an image of a 1952 fire along the same waterway, according to Cleveland Historical. The picture showed a massive inferno, and although the 1969 fire wasn't nearly as dramatic, it prompted a national conversation about conservation.
While it wasn't the only event that influenced the first Earth Day – a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, California in early 1969 began to shift Americans' views on environmental policy, as did a die-off of bald eagles and overhunting of whales, according to NOAA – the crisis on the Cuyahoga, named for the Iroquoian word that translates to "crooked river," enlightened millions of citizens about how bad the issue had gotten.
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The Cuyahoga River also caught fire in 1948.(Cleveland State Library Special Collections)
The Cuyahoga Was Part of a Bigger Problem
Cleveland's biggest river didn't suddenly become polluted. It took decades of waste and chemical dumping to get that way, and those pollutants caught fire at least a dozen times. In fact, as conservation science writer John Hartig said in his book "Burning Rivers – Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire," rivers across the Great Lakes region, including the Chicago and Buffalo, caught fire often in the 20th century, and for years, it really wasn't seen as much of a problem.
"Industry was king, and dirty rivers were considered a sign of prosperity," Hartig wrote.
In the middle of the century, fires were so frequent on the Chicago River that residents gathered on bridges to watch the conflagrations, the Michigan Environmental Council said. Those who spoke out against the industries responsible for polluting the waterways were called anti-progress, and because industry ruled, nobody dared oppose the big corporations responsible for the pollution.
A Dirty Legacy
The Cuyahoga's final major fire occurred in 1969, and while it was by far the most infamous, it was the river's filthy past that allowed the blaze to become so newsworthy. The '69 fire was relatively small – it hardly made the local media and only a pair of railroad bridges were damaged at a cost of about $100,000, according to Cleveland Historical. But the dozen or so other fires that burned over the course of several decades had taken their toll.
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The Cuyahoga River wasn't alone – Lake Erie was also polluted with oil, as seen in this image from 1976.(Cleveland State University Library Division of Special Collections)
Some reports say the first fires began 100 years before the 1969 blaze, but by the mid-20th century, the world was getting smaller. Technology was advancing, and television news broadcasts brought viewers a national brand of news. Those who had never seen a river burn were in disbelief that it was possible, and the national conversation began. Cleveland, and so many other Midwestern cities, had a real problem.
Cleveland officials were eager to clean up the Cuyahoga. The city spent $100 million to clean up the river in the late 1960s, the Washington Post said. The water was slowly cleaned up, but it was a long process. It took nearly 20 years for insects and fish to return to the river, according to the New York Times.
By the end of the 1960s, a senator from Wisconsin had seen enough, and he was determined to bring change, not just in the Midwest, but across the country.
Nelson's Bold Plan
Gaylord Nelson was a former Wisconsin governor who brought his love of the environment to the U.S. Senate. He worked with President John F. Kennedy on a national tour to promote conservation in 1963, but it was his plan for a national holiday that etched his name in the environmental history books.
When Nelson, a Democrat, arrived in Washington, he saw a country that was highly polluted and needed guidance on environmental issues. In the early and mid-1960s, Nelson helped write laws like the Wilderness Act of 1964, which protected more than 9 million acres from being developed, but when the big story became the fires on the Cuyahoga, Nelson saw an opportunity.
On the first day of 1970, Congress signed the National Environment Protection Act into law, which helped create the EPA. But as that bill made its way through Congress, Nelson was drawing up plans for the first Earth Day later that year.
Through events known as environmental "teach-ins," Nelson got the word out to college campuses, according to Weather Underground meteorologist Bob Henson. From there, the grassroots campaign grew, and the group chose April 22 as the date for the first Earth Day – exactly 10 months after the latest Cuyahoga River fire. Nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population participated in Earth Day 1970 events, NOAA said.
Clearly, the fire sparked more than originally thought.
Earth Day is a commitment to make life better, not just bigger and faster; To provide real rather than rhetorical solutions.
It is a day to re-examine the ethic of individual progress at mankind’s expense.
It is a day to challenge the corporate and governmental leaders who promise change, but who shortchange the necessary programs.
It is a day for looking beyond tomorrow. April 22 seeks a future worth living.
April 22 seeks a future.
– Excerpt from full-page New York Times ad posted by Environmental Teach-In
MORE: Facts About Earth Day
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