On June 22, 1969, oil and debris on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames and burned for twenty-five minutes. The burning river quickly became national news. Time magazine published an article headlined “The Price of Optimism,” complete with a spectacular photo of the river aflame. Randy Newman wrote a song about the famous fire. And decades later, environmental leaders remembered the fire as an emblematic cause of the burgeoning environmental movement. “I will never forget a photograph of flames, fire, shooting right out of the water in downtown Cleveland,” President Clinton’s EPA administrator Carol Browner said years later. “It was the summer of 1969 and the Cuyahoga River was burning.”
But the famous photograph that appeared in Time was not of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. It was of a far more serious fire in 1952 that burned for three days and caused $1.5 million in damage. In fact, the Cuyahoga had caught fire on at least a dozen occasions since 1868. Most of those earlier fires were much more devastating than the 1969 blaze: A fire on the Cuyahoga in 1912 killed five people. A fire in 1936 burned for five days. The 1969 fire, by contrast, lasted just under thirty minutes, caused only $50,000 in damage, and injured no one. The reason Time had to use the photograph of the 1952 fire is that the 1969 fire was out before anyone could snap a picture of it.
For at least a hundred years before 1969, industrial river fires were a normal part of American life. In his scrupulous reconstruction of the era, the environmental law professor Jonathan Adler writes,
The first reported Cuyahoga River fires were well over a century ago. Indeed, it appears that burning oil and debris in rivers was somewhat common. Due to the volume of oil in the river, the Cuyahoga was “so flammable that if steamboat captains shoveled glowing coals overboard, the water erupted in flames” … The Cuyahoga was also not the only site of river fires. A river leading into the Baltimore harbor caught flame on June 8, 1926 … The Rouge River in Dearborn, Michigan, “repeatedly caught fire” like the Cuyahoga, and a tugboat on the Schuylkill burned when oil on the river’s surface was lit.
It wasn’t that nobody had noticed that the river had become a disaster. In 1881, the mayor of Cleveland called the Cuyahoga “an open sewer.” The problem was that there wasn’t the political will to do much about it. After the Civil War, the city was understandably more concerned with building a new sewer system to prevent more cholera outbreaks than with addressing the occasional river fire.
Like the sad and largely unacknowledged history of the Cuyahoga, smog in Los Angeles and other cities was bad in 1970 but hardly worse than the foul air Americans breathed in earlier eras. All of which begs the question: if modern environmentalism was born in response to the dramatic visual evidence of industrial pollution, why wasn’t it born in 1868, 1912, or 1952?