The Cuyahoga River fire of Nov. 1, 1952.CreditCreditBettmann/Getty Images

Neil Maher for the NY Times: How Many Times Does a River Have to Burn Before It Matters?

Neil M. Maher, professor in the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, Newark, and author of the book “Apollo in the Age of Aquarius,” writes for the NY Times about Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River cacthing fire.


When Cleveland’s Cuyahoga caught fire, it was as much about urban blight as environmental crisis.

It was like a game of telephone.

In the first whispers, which appeared in local newspapers on June 23, 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River didn’t burn. A floating oil slick did, for only 25 minutes, damaging a couple of train trestles.

In the next telling, which appeared in Time magazine a month later, the heavily polluted river “burst into flames” and “nearly destroyed” the trestles. The photograph accompanying the article showed firefighters frantically spraying down a boat surrounded by flaming water.

The final version played out in the early 1970s, in National Geographic, a watchdog report by Ralph Nader and numerous accounts that credit the fire with helping to jump-start the modern environmental movement. Even The New York Times reported much later that the 1969 fire “led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and to the passage of the Clean Water Act.”