To many the phrase “burning river” might seem like an oxymoron. Rivers are water, and water is used to extinguish fires. But June 22 marked the 50th anniversary of the famous Cuyahoga River fire.
That day in 1969, when flammable pollutants floating in the river were ignited by a spark made by a passing train, is forever etched in Cleveland’s historical memory. The flames, reaching five stories high, subsequently brought down the railroad bridge. No photos are known to exist of this catastrophic event.
That was the 13th time the Cuyahoga caught fire. The first time was in 1868. Five people were burned to death in 1912, and the 1952 fire caused $1.3 million worth of damage. As the city became a manufacturing center, executives at profit-hungry companies, such as U.S. Steel, Republic Steel, Jones & Laughlin Steel, Sherwin-Williams and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, thought nothing of dumping waste in the river. The river burned under the shadow of Republic Steel.
After residents complained of foul-tasting drinking water, tests done as early as 1922 determined: “The polluted water of the Cuyahoga River reached the water works intakes, and this polluted water contained the material which caused the obnoxious taste.” (Smithsonian, June 19) Yet by 1969, no corporations had ever been held accountable for their environmental recklessness.
One elected official who voiced concern about pollution was Mayor Carl B. Stokes, the first African-American elected mayor in a major U.S. city. In 1968, with his backing, voters overwhelmingly passed a $100 million bond initiative to fund efforts to clean up the Cuyahoga. Stokes held a press conference at the river’s edge the day after the fire.
The fire drew attention to the crises of pollution threatening the country’s air, land and water — and it gave impetus to the environmental movement. This movement emerged in tandem with powerful struggles against racism, sexism, gay oppression (as LGBTQ2S+ was referred to then), imperialist war and other injustices.
Cleveland has played an important role in the radical movement. The city hosted many anti-war conferences. The 1966 Hough Rebellion and 1968 Glenville Rebellion shook up the racist power structure. The city was also the site of the first Earth Day in April 1970, when 1,000 Cleveland State University students held a teach-in and marched from their campus to the river to protest pollution.
Congressmember Louis Stokes, the mayor’s brother, helped push the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Under pressure from the mass ecology movement, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and overrode President Richard Nixon’s veto of the bill.
Another dirty legacy: racism
The name Cuyahoga was appropriated from an Iroquois language, spoken by the Indigenous peoples of the area before colonization. It may be a distortion of the Mohawk word Cuyagaga, which means “crooked,” or of Cuyohaga, the Seneca word meaning “place of the jawbone.” (Encyclopedia of Cleveland History) The river briefly defined the western border of the U.S. until — as with every other treaty between European and Indigenous peoples — white settlers broke the Treaty of Greenville and pushed westward.
As settlements expanded on both sides of the Cuyahoga, the crooked, winding river divided the city into East and West sides. The river represents another ugly feature of Cleveland history: racist segregation. When African Americans came north seeking industrial jobs, they were largely concentrated on the East Side. Decades later, they still crossed the bridge with trepidation to enter the West Side, where the white population lived. with trepidation.
Hough, originally a wealthy enclave, was later a place of refuge for Jewish immigrants after World War II. By the early 1960s, it had become an impoverished Black neighborhood. by the early 1960s. There, Civil Rights protesters were arrested in 1964 when they lay down in a ditch to protest construction of a segregated school, a project that froze Black workers out of building trades jobs. Rev. Bruce Klunder lay down behind a bulldozer. The operator backed up over the activist minister and killed him instantly.
Conditions in segregated housing became a major subject of the 1966 U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearings. In April of that year, a public inquiry heard testimony about the terrible living conditions for Hough’s Black residents. Two months later, Hough exploded in a rebellion initially triggered by racist abuse of Black patrons at a white-owned bar. The Ohio National Guard crushed the rebellion on July 24, four days after it began, leaving four Black Clevelanders dead.
The 1967 election of Mayor Stokes, who garnered support on both sides of the Cuyahoga, was a historic blow against racism. The whole city benefited from his work against pollution.
50 years after the fire
“Riverfest,” held on this year’s anniversary of the fire, celebrated the Cuyahoga’s comeback. The river that was once declared dead, and unable to sustain life in any form, now teems with fish and attracts canoers, kayakers and even swimmers.
However, there are serious environmental issues facing Cleveland and the whole Great Lakes region. Water levels reached record highs this spring in Lake Erie at the mouth of the Cuyahoga. This posed the danger of flooding, such as Lake Ontario has experienced in the past two years, as well as soil erosion.
Like the century-long period when the Cuyahoga was a floating fire hazard, this new hazard to the environment is not the result of natural causes. Climate change has caused unnatural highs and lows in the water levels of the Great Lakes.
A June 8 article in Scientific American explained: “As researchers specializing in hydrology and climate science, we believe rapid transitions between extreme high and low water levels in the Great Lakes represent the ‘new normal.’ Our view is based on interactions between global climate variability and the components of the regional hydrological cycle. Increasing precipitation, the threat of recurring periods of high evaporation and a combination of both routine and unusual climate events — such as extreme cold air outbursts — are putting the region in uncharted territory.”
Climate change, like pollution, is the result of human activity, specifically production for profit. Historically and today, the fossil fuel industry barons, including the greedy Rockefellers, have demonstrated wanton disregard for the health of the planet.
The cleaner air and water in Cleveland is in no small part due to deindustrialization. Most automobile, steel and machine tool factories have closed, and those still standing are automated. The largest employers are now primarily in government and health care sectors, based on the number of full-time employees.
While the environment has benefited to a degree from some deindustrialization, to a degree, the drastic loss of manufacturing jobs has devastated Cuyahoga County economically. Child poverty in Cleveland is even higher than in Detroit. Hardest hit is the still-segregated — or as some studies say “hypersegregated” — East Side where African-Americans have the highest poverty rate.
The impact of the foreclosure crisis is clearly visible. The high rate of lead poisoning among Black children is caused by lead paint used in old rental homes poorly maintained by landlords. This is environmental racism.
The multiple crises facing this city, once defined by its crooked river, are all consequences of the crooked system of capitalist exploitation. What is happening in Cleveland is happening worldwide as corporate profiteers destroy nature and pauperize workers and oppressed people. Getting rid of capitalism is the only way to fix the problems it creates.
The city of Cleveland has a proud history of fightback against this system — from the 1936-37 General Motors strikes to the Hough Rebellion — and it will be a fighting force in the class struggles ahead.