How Cleveland's Cuyahoga River Helped Give Us the First Earth Day

Sean Breslin
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.

(MORE: Why Even Landlocked Cities Should Worry About Sea Level Rise)

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.

(MORE: New Posters Imagine National Parks in 2050, and It's Not Pretty)

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


The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

Featured Blogs

Meteorology of Saturday's Colombian Flood Disaster That Killed 254

By Dr. Jeff Masters
April 3, 2017

At least 254 people were killed in the in the city of Mocoa (population 40,000) in southwest Colombia near the border of Ecuador early Saturday, when torrential rains triggered a debris flow on a nearby mountain that surged into the town as a huge wall of water carrying tons of mud and debris. The disaster is the fourth deadliest weather-related disaster in Colombia’s recorded history.

Iconic American Destination Virtually Isolated for Rest of Year

By Christopher C. Burt
March 24, 2017

Half of the village of Big Sur, on the coast of central California, has lost its only access to the north following the demolition of the flood-damaged Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge along State Route 1 (also Rt. 1 or SR 1) on March 19. Although Rt. 1 to the south of Big Sur has reopened to traffic (after mud and rock slides were cleared) it is a long 70-mile journey along the windy but spectacular highway to Cambria, the next town of any significance where supplies can be had. CalTrans (California Department of Transportation) estimates it will take 6-9 months to rebuild a new bridge over the canyon.

An extraordinary meteorological event; was one of its results a 1000-year flood?

By Stu Ostro
October 5, 2015

The confluence of meteorological ingredients the first weekend in October 2015 resulted in an extraordinary weather event with severe impacts. Was one of them a 1000-year flood?

Why the Arrest of a Science-Loving 14-year-old Matters

By Shaun Tanner
September 16, 2015

By now, many of you have heard or read about the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old high school student from Irving, Texas. Ahmed was arrested because school officials called the police after he showed one of his teachers his homemade clock. Mistaken for a bomb, Ahmed was taken into custody, interrogated, shamed, suspended (still on suspension today, Wednesday), and reprimanded. All of this after it has been found that the "device" he brought to school was indeed, a homemade clock.