Cuyahoga River: From Flames to Fish

Cuyahoga River fire of 1952. There are no known photos of the 1969 fire.
Cuyahoga River fire of 1952. There are no known photos of the 1969 fire.

On this date in 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire.

Here are some things you may not have known about what was once one of America’ most polluted waterways.

The mouth of the Cuyahoga River is about 30 miles from its headwaters, but the river takes a U-shaped route of about 100 miles to travel that distance.

The name Cuyahoga is believed to be a combination of several Native American names for the river. The name is usually translated as crooked river.

Moses Cleaveland surveyed the mouth of the Cuyahoga in 1797, when the area was still part of the Connecticut Western Reserve. He established a settlement there, which bears his name .. sort of.

Cleaveland spelled his name C-L-E-A-V-E-L-A-N-D, which is how the city spelled its name until 1830. There are two stories as to why the spelling of the city’s name changed. The first is that the original spelling was too long to fit on the front page of the city’s first newspaper. The other story is that the name was misspelled on an early version of the map.

As the city of Cleveland grew, the river became one of the most polluted in the United States. The fire of 1969 wasn’t the first time the river went up in flames. It has happened at least 13 times, the first in 1868. The largest fire was in 1952, and caused more than $1 million in damages to boats, a bridge and a building. The fire of 1969 became the centerpiece of a Time magazine article on America’s polluted rivers. The Cuyahoga was described as a river the “oozes rather than flows” and in which person “does not drown, but decays.”

The fire helped lead to the creation of the Clean Water Act and of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The river, which was once devoid of fish, now supports 44 species.

The 1969 fire inspired the song “Burn On” by Randy Newman, and “Cuyahoga” by R.E.M., among others.

Our question: The song “Burn On” played over the opening credits of what movie?

Today is Anti-Fascist Struggle Day in Croatia, and Teachers’ Day in El Salvador.

It’s unofficially National Chocolate Eclair Day and National Onion Rings Day.

It’s the birthday of film director Billy Wilder, who was born in 1906; actor and musician Kris Kristofferson, who turns 80; and actress Meryl Streep, who is 67.

This week in 1969, the top song in the U.S. was “Get Back” by The Beatles featuring Billy Preston.

The No. 1 movie was “True Grit,” while the novel “The Love Machine” by Jacqueline Susann topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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