Cleveland marks day the river caught fire

Burning River Anniversary
A sailboat on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland on Monday. On June 22, 1969 floating oil and debris caught fire on the river.Mark Duncan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The joke is no longer on Cleveland, with fish, jet skis, kayakers and boaters returning to the river that caught fire and helped spur the national environmental movement.

Floating oil and debris ignited by sparks on June 22, 1969, created an indelible impression of a burning Cuyahoga River that became a standing joke and a symbol of urban decay and runaway pollution.

The city held a good-humored 40th anniversary celebration on Monday to highlight the improved water quality. The civic celebration included "smoked" and "fire-roasted" menu specials by the Great Lakes Brewing Co., whose taproom staples include Burning River pale ale.

"We were all embarrassed to live in the city where the river caught on fire," said Kathy Whitford, 52, a competitive rower. "It was a joke nationally on TV shows and all types of formats."

She has noticed the improved environment, with tourist cruises and a growing number of college and high school rowing teams using the river. Still, she said, "If someone fell in, they'll be jumping in the shower."

'Mistake by the lake'
The city sometimes derided as "the mistake by the lake" has embraced the comeback of the Cuyahoga River, a Lake Erie tributary and the heart of the industrial area that fueled Cleveland's economy for a century.

"The restoration definitely makes a difference," said Marilyn Cassidy, a Municipal Court judge who lives in the city's growing riverfront housing district.

"I think people my age appreciate the recovery. Younger people don't remember what it was like," the 55-year-old Cassidy said while walking her black poodle along a grassy waterfront esplanade.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has certified lower pollution and bacteria levels in the river and increased oxygen. More than 60 species of fish were found in the river in 2008, including some that cannot tolerate polluted water. As late as 1984, only 23 species were found.

Still, the Ohio Health Department recommends limiting eating fish caught in the river because of PCB and mercury pollution.

U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a former Cleveland mayor, said at a riverside gathering that the river had made "terrific progress" over the years.

"It's got to be working because you've got more fish," said Voinovich. Behind him, joggers ran alongside the river and rowers moved past rusting bridges, and the red fireboat that battled the river fire sprayed a water salute.