At the turn of the 20th Century, a dirty river was seen as a sign of prosperity and in Cleveland, the Cuyahoga River was horribly polluted. Business was booming along its banks, but the people and industries using the river were also killing it. Oil refineries, steel and paint manufacturers among others discharged their byproducts directly into the river. As the population grew, local sewer plants were overwhelmed and released raw sewage into the water as well. While many rivers in the country were experiencing similar issues, an incident on the Cuyahoga River helped to fuel the movement to clean them up.
On June 22, 1969, oil soaked debris on the river caught fire and damaged two railroad trestles in Cleveland. Through the years, fires had periodically occurred in the contaminated river. Since this fire was small and quickly extinguished, it merely earned a mention on page 11-C of the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next day. The story gained national attention however when it was picked up by Time magazine for their August 1 issue highlighting the nation’s environmental problems. The photographs shown in Time were actually from a 1952 fire. By 1969 steps were already being taken to clean up the river, but the story of the recent fire did help to further ignite an already burgeoning call for action. On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated and the Federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 assuring that river fires were a thing of the past.