The Number 1 Most Embarrassing Moment of Ohio History is…
Cleveland (June 22, 1969). The Cuyahoga River caught fire – or at least debris and combustible fluid floating in the river caught fire. The event did not gather much attention, since the river had caught fire at least 9 times before and since fires on rivers in industrial cities were not that unusual. Besides, it was a relatively small river fire. However, when Time magazine published a photograph of the fire in one of their highest circulating issues (the cover article featured Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident) the Cuyahoga River fire became synonymous with water pollution. The Cuyahoga on fire became a part of American myth, inspiring songs by Randy Newman and R.E.M. and decades of jokes by late-night talk show hosts. The photograph went viral, becoming an emblem of Cleveland. And the photograph was not even of the 1969 fire, but of a larger fire in 1952.
The Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) credits the popular attention to the fire with leading to the creation of the agency and passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Ohio History Central: Cuyahoga River Fire
“Environment: The Cities: The Price of Optimism”, Time Magazine, August 1, 1969
From Time article: “The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.” It is also—literally —a fire hazard. A few weeks ago, the oil-slicked river burst into flames.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agrency, “Cuyahoga River Area of Concern”
“From the Ashes of ’69, a River Reborn” Christopher Maag, New York Times; June 20, 2009