Pollution and the River’s Recovery
The Cuyahoga River is the reason Cleveland is here. Most major cities are by rivers, because rivers are a source of water, but also because rivers are convenient natural sewers. Within a few decades, that led to some problems.
Problem 1: Since 1827 the Cuyahoga River has been manipulated, widened, and deepened to facilitate a ship navigation channel. The dredging that deepens the river also slows it down, so pollution collects. For more than a century after industrialization, you could probably stand next to the Cuyahoga River on any given day and watch a toxic flotilla of industrial waste, consumer garbage, and sewer overflow as it oozed its way towards killing Lake Erie. Much of the pollution was flammable.
Problem 2: Cleveland is essentially at the bottom of a 30-mile hill whose peak is the north side of Akron. Over 800 square miles of watershed drain into the Cuyahoga River.
Problem 3: Major waterways usually traverse multiple jurisdictions. Only strong national laws can protect them, and most U.S. laws only protected water as it related to ship navigation.
Problem 4: Timing. Other industrialized cities like Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and others experienced similar problems and had fires on their rivers. Detroit even had a major fire AFTER Cleveland’s famous fire. But Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was featured in the incredibly popular August 1 1969 issue of Time Magazine that featured Ted Kennedy on the cover and the first Apollo moon landing inside. The article “America’s Sewage System and the Price of Optimism” cited the Cuyahoga River as probably the worst of our nation’s severely polluted rivers.