The Story of the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969 – The River That Caught Fire

Do you know the story – or better said the fable – behind the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969, also known as ‘The River That Caught Fire’?

In a few words, the US burning river helped to spur the environmental movement in the late 1960s, sparked pop songs and lit the imagination of an entire nation. But so much of what we think we know about this story just is not so.

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This photo published by the Times is not from the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire but from 1952

This heavily polluted river – meaning ‘crooked river’ in Iroquoian language – caught fire on the morning of June 22, 1969 in Cleveland. The burning fire helped to spur the environmental movement in the late 1960s.

When the rivers are on fire, then you know things are bad, isn’t it?

The problem with the story of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire is that so much of what we think we know about this story just is not so:

  • The famous image published by Time magazine in its August 1 1969 edition is of fire on the Cuyahoga in 1952, so 17 years earlier. No pictures of the 1969 fire exist.
  • So the 1969 Cuyahoga fire was not a symbol of how bad conditions on the nation’s rivers could become, but how bad they had once been. Actually, this wasn’t the first time a river was burning in the USA, BUT THE LAST!

Do you know the Citarum River in Indonesia?

June 2014 was the 45th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire myth. Time to celebrate the substantial environmental progress of the past several decades, while recognizing that many environmental problems remain.

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