Every once in a while, humanity manages to do something so sublimely awful that all we can do is laugh. Next month, we’ll mark the 40th anniversary of one of these events.

No one died when Cleveland’s pollution-choked Cuyahoga River caught fire and burned. At least not immediately. Johnny Carson made Tonight Show jokes about it. Randy Newman wrote a song about it. REM wrote another song about it years later. Richard Nixon signed a law because of it. Thanks to the burning Cuyahoga, Cleveland rose to battle my native New Jersey for supremacy as America’s most ridiculed place.

Oh, and there’s one more thing: The June 22 fire that sparked a national uproar was nothing new for the Cuyahoga, nor for many rivers in industrial areas. This page from the library at Cleveland State University displays photographs from six previous river torchings, from 1949 to 1961, and there are so many other anecdotal reports of riparian blazes that it’s probably not unfair to describe them as routine events. A 1952 fire, believed to be the biggest, caused $1.5 million in damage to bridges and nearby structures.

(A quick digression here about other burning rivers: About 20 years ago, I spoke at Youngstown State University in Ohio. I mentioned the legend of the burning Cuyahoga, some 40 miles away. A few days later, I got a letter from an outraged student who had attended the speech. It seems Youngstown’s Mahoning River had also caught fire, and he was sick and tired of Cleveland and the Cuyahoga getting all the glory. So, better late than never, here’s to you, Mahoning River.)

The 1969 Cuyahoga blaze was extinguished quickly in part because the city had a fireboat patrolling the river in anticipation of the river catching fire. By the best available accounts, a spark from a freight car crossing the river on a trestle ignited oil, sludge, logs, and singed the bridge itself. It was out too quickly for news crews to grab any pictures. Which is why Time magazine, in an essay sounding the alarm about burning rivers, used a photo from the 1952 blaze.

Years later, Carol Browner invoked the image while serving as the Clinton-era EPA administrator. "I will never forget a photograph of flames, fire, shooting right out of the water in downtown Cleveland," she said. "It was the summer of 1969 and the Cuyahoga River was burning." Of course, the photo she remembered was actually from 1952.

Which of course doesn’t matter. America was waking up to its accruing environmental problems, and the latest in a long series of Cuyahoga fires became an anointed poster child. By 1972, Congress had passed, and Nixon had signed, what became known as the Clean Water Act (CWA) with a goal of restoring America’s waterways to “fishable, swimmable” condition. The law attacked “point-source” dischargers -- those who dump pollutants directly into waterways. It also tried to get hold of “non-point” pollutants -- runoff from farm chemicals, oil from streets and parking lots, leaky septic tanks, and more. The CWA also embraced development and destruction along waterways and in wetlands, giving regulators a tool to protect entire river and lake systems.

Thirty-seven years later, the Clean Water Act is still a long way from total success. I suspect that quite a few of you reading this haven’t accepted the nearest river as being “swimmable.” Development pressure for CWA-protected wetlands has unleashed an unending torrent of litigation. But the CWA has gone a long way toward reversing a national disgrace. This timeline gives a good reading of both its successes and its failures. A recent PBS "Frontline" investigation highlights two of its monumental failures — cleaning up Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound.

Today, the Cuyahoga is marketed as an urban garden spot. Under the Clean Water Act, the river’s been fire-proofed, hopefully for good. It winds past the Flats, a once-dying factory and warehouse zone that’s now the heart of Cleveland’s club/restaurant/bar nightlife. It flows past the arena where LeBron James plays basketball, and the ballpark where the Indians try and fail every year to be World Series champs. It meets Lake Erie not far from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where Jim Morrison’s Cub Scout uniform and Madonna’s stainless steel brassiere are on display. (I believe the latter is on loan from the Museum of Engineering.) As for Lake Erie, it’s no longer on deathwatch. The lake’s still battling pollution, and a growing legion of invasive fish and mussels that crowd out native populations, but it’s alive.

In truth, the industry that fouled the river didn’t leave; it died. Cleveland’s hardly an economically healthy city, and the river’s hardly a garden spot. It’s still challenged by all of the problems of any urban stream: runoff, and aging sewage and septic systems. But it’s come a long, long way, and Cleveland should be proud.

So should we all be proud. Even Nixon, who signed the law that turned around a thousand Cuyahogas from coast to coast. The only discouraging note is that we needed a sublimely awful image like a burning river to awaken us, and we needed it broadcast and talked about from coast to coast before we found the collective will to deal at least partially with the problem. More sublimely awful events may await us with climate change. Let’s hope that that’s not what it takes, but if it does, let’s hope it’s not too late to get off our butts and fix the problem.

Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He has maintained three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem, Political Habitat and Green States.


If you’re wondering why I’m writing about the Cuyahoga Anniversary nearly a month before it happens, it’s because this is my last column for MNN. I start next week in Washington as deputy director at the Pew Charitable Trust’s Environment Group. It’s a full-time job and then some, and a great opportunity. Writing here has been a blast, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Or gotten mad about it. Or at least learned from it.

Green States: Changing the course of mighty rivers
Every once in a while, humanity manages to do something so sublimely awful that all we can do is laugh. Next month, we’ll mark the 40th anniversary of one of