Cleveland Comhrá: Cuyahoga River by Boat

Cleveland Comhrá:  Cuyahoga River by Boat
by Bob Carney

1969 was a momentous and also a turbulent year in the history of our country, and the rest of our planet. NASA made good on John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon, when on July 20, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot there. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was growing as mainstream America questioned the cost in American lives that were being lost.

Woodstock, a small music festival in New York grew into a cultural phenomenon. The Beatles played their last public performance together. PBS was established and Sesame Street would become one of the building blocks for educating our children. August 14, 1969, Britain deployed troops in the north of Ireland and the violence there escalated.

We were also becoming more eco-aware in the United States. Our own Cuyahoga River was one of the most polluted rivers in the country, and on June 22, floating pieces of oil soaked debris were ignited from sparks from a passing train. The flames were determined to have reached a height of over five stories and lasted about a half hour. Damage was relatively minor, around $50,000 worth to a trestle and a bridge owned by Norfolk and Western Railway Co. There were no photographs and the news made page 11 in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

But the timing was everything; Cleveland was the first major city in America to have elected an African-American mayor. The national media was paying a lot of attention to Carl Stokes and everything that was happening in Cleveland.

Time Magazine picked up the story of the fire to coincide with a piece on eco-awareness. Time acquired a photo of a larger fire from 1952 on the Cuyahoga and put it on the cover. That coverage brought the pollution and the shame of what we had been allowing to happen unchecked in our lakes and rivers across the nation into the light.

Inspired by the fire, and voters, Congress set out to clean up the problem of pollution. In Cleveland, Carl Stokes pushed hard for the legislation to clean up Cleveland’s waters. His brother Louis Stokes would do the same in Congress.

With the support of the nation, on the 1st of January 1970, the National Environment Policy Act was signed into law and helped to establish the EPA. The EPA in turn put forth the Clean Water Act in 1972, which stated that all rivers in the United States be clean enough to safely allow mass amounts of swimmers and fish within the water by 1983.

Since the fire, the Northeast Regional Sewer District has invested $3.5 billion towards the purification of the river and neighboring sewer systems. The river is now home to over sixty species of fish and wildlife that can be found along it’s banks. Recreational activities, once unthinkable, are now common in it’s waters.

Now, as far as the river catching fire.. . “Liquids Don’t Burn!” Doug Kusak, historical interpreter for Cleveland Metroparks, animatedly told our group as he led us on a boat cruise up the Cuyahoga from Merwin’s Wharf. Doug is well suited for his work, a gifted speaker, he combines humor, historical fact, physics, and social and environmental awareness into all of his presentations.

“Cuyahoga by Boat” is presented by Cleveland Metroparks with Doug as your guide. He separates fact from fiction surrounding the fire that helped change the way we treat our environment, our home. Six miles up the river, he talks about the past and present of industry on it’s banks, the cargo ships, watersheds, the new trails being built and the health of the river and it’s species. At the end of the two hour cruise, you’re back at Merwin’s Wharf, directly across from Irishtown Bend. I’ve been fortunate to attend Doug’s program on Irishtown Bend a couple of times and he shares some of that on the cruise as well.

We tend to be apathetic when it comes to things we don’t know or that we think don’t affect us directly. This cruise and Doug’s program is a way to learn of the importance of the Cuyahoga River, all while having a very enjoyable afternoon or evening. There are still dates left this month.
For more information on Doug’s programs or guided tours, visit or email Doug: dak@clevelandmetroparks.

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