tv Cuyahoga River Fire 50th Anniversary CSPAN July 1, 2019 3:00am-4:07am EDT
the cuyahoga river as it reaches lake erie after a 100 mile journey from its headwaters is an exhaustive stream, abused and misused by man and his machines. without the cuyahoga, cleveland and akron would not exist. the river was the reason for originally settling this portion of the western reserve in the 1780's. the river called crooked by the delaware indians provided a waterway to the interior of ohio. and so man came and continued coming.
until today, nearly two million people live and work in the river basin. in creating this urban complex, man has used the river as men have always used rivers. the flow has been put to work as a navigable stream, a water supply, and as a sewer. man's mark is everywhere. is this mark an epitaph or the cuyahoga? >> joining us from the cleveland area is david stradling. he is a professor of history at the university of cincinnati and the co-author of "where the river burned: carl stokes and the struggle to save cleveland." let me begin, though, by asking physically where are you located and explain what happened 50 years ago this month. david: hi, thanks for having me. we are sitting near the mouth of the cuyahoga river, which is to say we are sitting where the cuyahoga reaches lake erie.
so you can see over my shoulder, one of the railroad trestles that crosses the cuyahoga river. there is a lot of bridges in cleveland. downtown cleveland is to my left. to my right is ohio city neighborhood in the city of cleveland. we are sitting down in the area called the flats, which are the lands right along the cuyahoga river. they run up several miles. this is the former industrial area of the city of cleveland, and 50 years ago on june 22, 1969, there was a fire on the cuyahoga river at the end of navigation, couple of miles south of here, end of navigation meaning boats could not go farther upstream. this is where a couple of low railroad trestles blocked some debris that was coming downstream, which is not unusual. the piers from the bridge got soaked in oil, which also was not unusual, and then there was
a spark, perhaps from a passing train. we don't know exactly what set off the fire, and the trestles burned for about 20 minutes or a half an hour. fire ere doused by both a boat and from crews on the shore . photographers didn't get there in time to give us a picture of the cuyahoga burning that time, but eventually news about the cuyahoga catching fire became international in scope. so this is what we are celebrating, the 50th anniversary of the cuyahoga no longer catching fire. >> but there had been previous fires along the cuyahoga. this was not the first, correct? david: absolutely. there were perhaps a dozen, maybe even more, fires on the cuyahoga before the 1969 fire. probably the one that became most famous is the fire in 1952. it became most famous because many people began to confuse photographs of that much worse
fire with the fire that happened in 1969, and that's because "time" magazine, which ran a piece about water pollution in august of 1969, either inadvertently or purposefully used a photograph from 1952 and indicated that this was the cuyahoga river catching fire. that photograph shows a tugboat basically trapped in flames. it was a very damaging fire, training waterrs on an oil slick. most people outside of cleveland would have assumed that rivers don't catch firen a regular basis. what they were looking at in 1969 in "time" magazine was a photograph of something that had just happened, and there the confusion only gets more extreme. people began to think that this was -- in 1969 was a catastrophic fire, that there was tremendous damage that was
done, that it was five stories tall, that it burned for hours. i even saw somebody say that it burned for days. so the mythology around what actually happened in 1969 begins to grow, and my brother richard and i, as we researched our book, decided that probably the reason why the mythology about the burning river -- why it grows so much is because people's thoughts about a burning river having to be a major event, that this is a biblical thing, that rivers dote catch fire. it must be a sign of terrible water pollution of a type that had never been seen before. of course, the many previous fires dating all the way back to the late 19th century is an indication that the pollution had been a long-term problem in cleveland. >> the first reported fire going back to 1868, going back to the "time" magazine piece 50 years
ago describing the cuyahoga as a river that oozes rather than flows, and in which people do not drown but decay. so just how bad was the river? david: i don't think there is any doubt that the cuyahoga was a terribly polluted river in 1969. i do think that it was not at its nadir, that in fact the pollution was much worse in the 1940's and 1950's, which is one of the reasons why there is a significant cluster of fires in those two decades. one of the things that the city of cleveland did to improve the water quality or at least to diminish the flammability of the river is to regularly clear the debris from the river and to eak up oil slicks with water canons, but that's not something that could be dope above the head of navigation -- done above the head of navigation, so this particular fire was not preventable in that way. but cleveland, like a lot of cities, has been investing significant amounts of money in
its sewage treatment infrastructure through the 20th century, and i think industry also had been making investments in diminishing the pollution load that it was dumping into the river, and i think significantly the oil refinery industry ha basically lsh had basically left cleveland by 1969. standard oil had closed its refinery, which was the last of the major refineries here. the water quality was bad. the ecology was greatly diminished. there was little reason for people to think of the cuyahoga as ecological space, to think of it as a complete river. at the same time, it was not as bad as it had been. >> along with his brother, david stradling is the co-author of
"where the river burned." he joins us in cleveland on this sunday. we welcome our viewers on c-span3's american history tv as we look back at the events from 50 years ago. we are dividing our phone lines regionally. those in the eastern half and those in the mountain and pacific time zones. we do have a line set aside for ohio redents especially if you are living in the cleveland and akron area. e would love to hear from you. 202-748-8002. i want to share with you the words of president richard nixon, who is credited with the creation of the e.p.a. here is what he had to say about our environment. president nixon: in the next 10 years, we shall increase our wealth by 50%. the profound question is, does this mean we will be 50% richer in a real sense, 50% better off, 50% happier, or does it mean that in the year 1980, the
president, standing in this place, will look back on a decade in which 70% of our people lived in metropolitan areas choked by traffic, suffocated by smog, poisoned by water, deafened by noise and terrorized by crime? these are not the great questions that concern world leaders at summit conferences, but people do not live at the summit. they live in the foothills of everyday experience, and it is time for all of us to concern ourselves with the way real people live in real life. the great question of the 1970's is, shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?
>> from a state of the union address, david stradling, as you hear that from richard nixon in 1970, one year after the fire along the cuyahoga river, your reaction? david: i think it's a recognition of just how powerful an issue -- a political issue the environment had become. nixon articulates it in a very common way at the time, which is to kind of suggest that things had just gotten so bad that now we finally have to deal with them. but as my earlier comments suggest, you know, the environment, particularly the urban environment around industry, had been so bad for so long that mostly what he is articulating is a changing sense that now we need to do something because american citizens are demanding that they be given access to clean water and clean
air, that their cities not be as filthy as they had been. i think that this is mostly a recognition that a tide had changed, that a series of events, including the cuyahoga river fire, but also the santa barbara oil spill -- there is a terrible pesticide spill on the rhine river a couple days after the fire in cleveland. all of these things begin to build up, these spectacular events, to remind people just how bad the urban environment, industrial environment had become. >> as you look at the river behind you, how does it look to you today? david: it's remarkable, the change that hs taken place here. it's twofold. it's difficult to tell exactly what is going on in the water itself because it's still the milky brown river that's flowing out of agricultural and forested land. it still has debris that floats
downstream. but we see water fowl. we see something you would never have seen 50 years ago, which is people out kayaking and i saw people out in sculls this morning. the cuyahoga has once again become a much more complete river. it is an agricultural space. i am sorry, a recognize rakesal space. there are new parks, -- recreational space. there are new parks, along the river, for people in the whole region. this is something that goes well south of the city of cleveland. the cuyahoga river -- cuyahoga valley national park has become a regional and a national treasure, really. it's a remarkable space for recreation, getting out of the city. >> our guest is david stradling, the co-author of "where the river burned." he is joining us from cleveland, ohio, a professor of history at the university of cincinnati. before we take our first call,
we want to thank the music box supper club for allowing us to put our cameras in place to allow david stradling to share with us on site, on the scene of what it was like there, and the fact that it's now a supper club, that there are bars and retrants along -- restaurants along the flats tells you what? david: it tells us that this is a part of the city that clevelanders are interested in returning to. this is not an entirely new movement in the 1990's, cleveland started to reimagine the flats, that so much of the industry had moved out. there is still an awful lot of interesting things here, mostly you see the engineering. it's a spectacular space, the engineering of the various bridges. it makes this an interesting place to be. in the 1990's, we had a bit of a -- kind of a kindling of this culture down here by the flats. it's come on much more intensely
in the last five or 10 years, much more capital put in here and this is really one of the ghlight areas of cleveland's culture. >> from nearby lorraine, ohio, sandra, you are first up. good morning. caller: yes, good morning. these rivers flow into the lake, lake erie. lake erie brings in $800 billion of revenue every year. so when this pollution -- well, this pollution is very costly. let me just add to that, that i live in lorraine, which has a river, black river, which also leads into the lake. a couple days ago, there was an oil spill on the lake, and -- i am sorry, on the river, and also the to take away from
rivers, but there was a lake here a truck was found to be ewing out chemicals into a wildlife refuge in spencer lake. >> thank you, sandra. we are going to jump in and get a response. david: sandra points out obviously the problems of pollution have not been completely solved. there is still a lot of industry around lake erie, of course, and the other great lakes. lorraine has a steel mill. even here in cleveland the major steel mills are once again up and running. i do believe they've made significant investments in water pollution control and also air ollution control, but no doubt accidents happen. there are, of course, other kinds of contributors to water
pollution. cleveland, like lots of cities that grew in the late 19th century and early 20th century, has combined sewers, which means that sanitary sewage combines with storm runoff and when it rains, that means that untreated sewage flows into both the cuyahoga and directly into lake erie. we also know that lake erie suffers from nonpoint pollution, which is to say agricultural runoff mostly, particularly over in toledo from the river. so as i tell my students, there are no permanent victories in environmental protection. it's an ongoing effort. you have to adjust to new threats, to new problems, and to be vigilant about regulation and enforcement. >> to the west of cleveland is toledo. tim, you are on the air. good morning. caller: hi, i just wanted to say that i was born and raised along the shores of the wami river.
i can remember as a kid the foam, when the water would wash -- used to fish with my dad. it was foamy along the river. as a kid, you don't go that's not normal. it was disgusting now thinking back. now, that was in the 1970's. walking along the garbage, all we , and now the river -- have small mouth bass that was in there. it was always carp, sometimes game fish like the walleye. but now it's cleaned up a lot. now all of a sudden we seem to be getting back to where we don't care about protecting our environment. it's like we won that battle and we do the same thing all over again with the oceans and all that. sooner or later, we got to wake up and realize you can't keep polluting where you live at. it's just logic.
it's basic sense. if you say something, you are a tree hugger, all these crazy things being said. can't we just be a logical species and say we -- i mean, 5000 years ago, you didn't go upstream and relieve yourself or go downstream and get drinking water. it's really kind of stupid as a species with the environment. that's how i feel. >> we will get a response. david: yeah, i appreciate the reference to the foaming river. he is referring to a period in this was a new -- indiscernible]
indiscernible] i will say as broader comment, the visibility of issues can be important to gathering political will. i think that's one of the reasons why the cuyahoga fire became so important because even though the image came from a different fire, the imagery of a river on fire really galvanized people. it was recognition, this is one ay to see water pollution. it's difficult to -- the river because you know, you have to do
tests. then it becomes an issue of numbers. trying to solve the problem -- much larger problem of climate change. it's difficult to identify an imagery that can create this political thing that gets people moving the way nixon was forced to move in 1970. >> with the cuyahoga river behind him, our best guest is david stradling. next caller, good morning. caller: good morning. from alabama, you have touched something that i have o.c.d. about, plastic. the plastic bottles, the plastic plates, the plastic jugs. have told my sister, threatened to carry -- when it gets empty, refill it and leave
it at target. i want to remind people, this fourth of july, you know, you can't find a little thin paper plate anymore. please, please, please, wash your plates and use your own silver wear. just have a wonderful day. thank you. >> thank you. indiscernible] >> we do see trash debris floating downriver which has been a long-term problem. the plastic lasts much longer and doesn't break down. so she is absolutely right. this is something that needs attention. it's going all the way back to 1970. the focus there for students was
>> the river that oozes rear than flows. the person does not drown but ecays. carl stokes, his response to all of this at the time, mr. straddling? david: carl stokes was the first african-american mayor of any major city. he really understood the problems of urban america. he was raised in poverty himself here in cleveland, grew up in one of the most degraded neighborhoods in public housing and central, so he had kind of a unique view on the problems of urban america.
indiscernible] >> talk about both at the same time. the solution to one problem were not going to solve the pro-s of urban america. you have to deal with all of these problems at once. they were all interconnected. so the day after the cuyahoga caught fire on a sunday morning, so on a monday morning he calls -- has his staff call together the local press and takes them on what my brother richard and i call the pollution tour.
they meet at the railroad trestle where the fire took place and he discussed water pollution in the cuyahoga but also lake erie noting that the city of cleveland was really powerless to solve the problems of water pollution. most , much of the -- directly from cuyahoga, just beyond the city limits. he talks about the way in which e suburbs themselves had not created sewage treatment plants. indiscernible] >> there was very little that carl stokes could do himself to lean up the river. federal government to create new regulations and provide resources to expand sewage
>> by the time the cuyahoga reaches cleveland, there is little life of any kind in its water. in all, 28 known industries discharge waste into the river during the 100 mile trek to the lake. the cleveland treatment plant adds another 75 million gallons of effluence in the river alone. now it is the river that is known throughout the world as the only one that's -- >> we talk about cleaning up lake erie. it's not out in the lake. it's in the tributaries.
>> industries find they have to clean it first. then many more before dumping it back. there are proposals for cleaning up the river and while the area will never again be a -- it can be made not to smell. the cost of the cleanup may be staggering. >> it boils down to two things. first, you have to toilet train ourselves and start putting our industrial waste and municipal waste or if we do clean them up before we do. second, we have to clean up the mess we have made for the past many decades. >> from the 1971 film, a crooked river dies, an epilogue. what changed between 1969 to today? how did we get to this point? david: well, there are several things that have affected this place in particular. obviously the federal regulation and federal --
[noise] >> there you go. it's a living right. -- it's a living river, right? federal regulation matters an awful lot but the investment, too, in sewage treatment and making certain that suburban communities tie into sewage treatment plants. that all matters. i also think in this particular location the fact that so much of the industry has left, means that clevelanders have to worry less about water and air pollution. of course, it means they have to matter more, worry more about jobs and what the evolving economy will become. >> industries situated along the cuyahoga and along the great lakes. what was the thinking of those executives that basically used the rivers and lakes as a dumping ground? david: i think mostly the idea
that the lakes and rivers could handle the pollution loads, at least early on, i think there is very limited understanding of what happens to pollution once you put it in a waterway. there was hope and an expectation that pollutants would break down or simply be carried away. that's the case for industry and communities that dumped into waterways, is the sense that it would be gradually diluted and become harmless. of course, that is untenable when you get so much industry concentrated in one place. at that point, it becomes difficult for industries to figure out how to work into their capital investment structure the incredible amount of investment that's necessary to change the way that they perform their basic processes. industries do make those changes early on.
republic steel, which was here, creates new settling basins so that they dump less iron filings into the cuyahoga river. some problems are more difficult technologically to solve. some are so difficult to solve that the industry basically stopped functioning here and moved to places where regulation is less intense. >> we know from the book the frontiers that the cuyahoga is an indian name which represents what? david: the cuyahoga means crooked river, and it gives a sense of just how meandering the cuyahoga is. it's crooked here in the city of cleveland, where there are really dramatic bends. in fact, this is an artificial mouth. it was punched out in the 19th century and that large boat that just came by and startled me was coming out of the old river, behind k a sharp left
me. >> on cue. david: yes. and the other sense the cuyahoga is crooked in that it comes from the south around akron, but its source is actually a little bit to the north and well to the east of cleveland. it heads south and heads back north. >> we welcome our radio audience. our guest is david stradling. "where the river burned: carl stokes and the struggle to save cleveland." he is joining us from cleveland. mary is on the phone from peninsula, ohio. good morning. caller: good morning. i actually as a young girl learned how to swim within the cuyahoga river a little bit, in a small town called mantaway. i grew up along the river. and after you got past akron is
where much of the pollution came. i am 58 years old, so this fire occurred in 1969 and i was literally 9 years old at the time, but it was all over the news. my father was a truck driver who hauled steel out of the flats there in cleveland, and at that point in time, you would not be -- the air pollution was so bad that you would not be able to see david where he is standing at this moment. 30 miles away from cleveland, you could smell the air pollution and when you got close to cleveland, the air was actually yellow, filled with sulfur from the steel mills and from the other factories that were up there. the street lights were on in the middle of the afternoon because the air was so polluted and the residents and the houses that lived close to that area, their homes were just gray with
pollution. i have seen the cuyahoga river as a child and watched it literally it did not flow. it kind of creeped along literally as an ooze, filled with foam, filled with floating dead fish, and it was amazing because the area of the cuyahoga that i grew up by was clean. we were swimming and catching fish in it, but 30 miles away, you saw floating tires, floating logs, floating everything and anything, boats upside down that were floating down the river, and the stench that came from the river and from cleveland at that point in time was so horrendous and the health issues of everybody that lived in that area. it is a night and day difference between what it had been permitted to become to what it is now. >> mary, thanks for that firsthand account. we will get a response from our guest.
appreciate you joining in on the conversation david: mary is calling from one of my favorite little towns in northern ohio. peninsula is inside of the national park on the cuyahoga valley. yes, she's absolutely right. to talk about air pollution, which i think most clevelanders would have identified as the ors worst of the environmental problems in the 1960 ease and 1970's. certainly it was a visible problem and i think it was a major impetus to the clearing out of the city as developers in the 1950's and 1960's are building new subdivisions well away from the industrial core as more and more americans have automobiles and can commute longer distances, as we invest in highways so that people can take those longer commutes. people choose to live farther away from polluted environment, and i believe that cleaning up
everywhere i go is people use plastic containers for liquid soaps when they wash their hands when they could have a bar of soap. nothing wrong with picking up a bar of soap to wash your hand. all this extra plastic coming into our world makes me very sad. hawaii is very advanced thinking we have gotten rid of plastic bags pretty much. we are packing styrofoam straws. indiscernible] >> from cities and agricultural areas. maybe we should take a lighter step on the planet and stop being so abusive to mother
earth. [indiscernible] >> plastic bags, banning them completely in new york and elsewhere? david: yeah, i think that she's pointing to the idea that you really can't rely on consumers necessarily to think all the time about the ways in which little decisions add up to big impact on the environment. we have passed through that era of -- new york state has -- many states have them. ohio does not. requires that you have a deposit on bottles and cans, including in new york state, for a bottle of water. indiscernible]