Forty years ago today, some oil and debris floating on the surface of the Cuyahoga River began to burn. The resulting fire was not much of a local event — it was out within 30 minutes and caused minimal damage — but soon became a national symbol of environmental ruin. The image of a river engulfed in flames seared itself into the nation's emerging environmental consciousness and helped spur a series of far-reaching federal environmental statutes. Today, people look at the Cuyahoga River with amazement at how far it has come in forty years time. "From fire to fish-friendly," as reported today by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire was one of the seminal events in American environmental history, yet the conventional narrative about the fire is all wrong — including the famous picture that Time magazine published erroneously. News photographers failed to arrive in time to catch pictures of the quick blaze. The picture Time published was actually from 1952.
The 1969 fire was less a symbol of how bad things could get, than a reminder of how bad things had once been. While the Cuyahoga River was hopelessly polluted in 1969, river fires by this point were largely a thing of the past. Indeed, river fires had once been common on the Cuyahoga and other industrialized rivers. Throughout the late 19th and 20th century, combustible material on industrialized rivers ignited somewhat frequently. By 1969, this problem had been largely solved. By that time, the Cuyahoga River had not burned in over 15 years, and the once-common problem of river fires had been largely forgotten. Water pollution remained a serious concern, but not because rivers threatened to burn.
There's been substantial media coverage of the river fire's 40th anniversary, much of which draws upon my effort to reconstruct an environmental history of the fire in "Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing a History of Environmental Protection" [14 Fordham Envtl. L.J. 89 (2002)]. The New York Times had a story today on the Cuyahoga River's tremendous environmental progress, as did NPR. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been running a whole series on "The Year of the River," which includes this story on the history, and this one on my research.