The Burning River That Started a Movement

I have a vivid childhood memory of a photograph, seen through a View-Master my grandfather gave me. A dark violet sky, with yellow and orange flames on a river. I remember seeing plumes from the pollution burning on that river.

My memory has blended Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969, which many believe was the catalyst for Earth Day and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with the image I remember.

On June 22, it will be 53 years since the burning river grabbed headlines and crystalised the American environmental movement.

The infamous river fire lasted only 30 minutes. It was extinguished quickly and caused limited damage. Thus, there were no photos because, at the time, nobody cared. Everyone knew the river was polluted and river fires were commonplace.

In fact, there had been many river fires in Cleveland, with significant ones in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948 and 1952. Each caused substantial damage, generated large financial losses and killed people. And yet, in 1969 the Cuyahoga River was not the only river to catch fire during the period as this was commonplace in industrial cities and area.

No Visible Life. Some river! Chocolate brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gasses, it oozes rather than flows. 

Time Magazine, “The Cities: The Price of Optimism”

Fortunately, as often happens, a small event becomes both the catalyst and a symbol of needed change.

Six months after the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire was profiled in Time magazine with a photo from its 1952 river fire, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency and the the federal government began to oversee pollution regulations.

Arial view of Cuyahoga River, 1967

Additionally, on that Arbor Day in 1970, students across the country held the first Earth Day, and later that same year, National Geographic featured the Cuyahoga River as their cover story, Our Ecological Crisis.

As we think about climate change and the challenges ahead, the Cuyahoga River offers some insights into what success can look like.

In 1969, there was no life — not even the sludge worms that typically were found in polluted rivers. The Cuyahoga River was even listed as the 43rd most polluted waterway in America in 1988.

Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River today — Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Today, toxin levels have dropped and wildlife has recovered dramatically. Fish swim in the river. Some birds previously listed on the endangered species list, the Peregrine falcons and Bald Eagle, were removed in 1999 and 2007, respectively.

So what will be the river fire that spurs our nation to act now on climate change today?

None of us want climate calamity to move us into action. Scientists give us until 2030 to remove the carbon from the atmosphere, and say we cannot afford to wait.

The View-master image stayed with me, from a time before I could understand the environmental movement. What images will remain with today’s young children? Blue rivers and skies teeming with wildlife and framed in lush green cities?

What will be our catalyst? Knowing that reversing climate change will take time, we must find our own tipping point.


By Elizabeth Pearce, Founder of SymSoil Inc, a California B-Corp. SymSoil is part of RegenIowa, which seeks to move 1 million acres of row crop farming from conventional chemical farming to regenerative agriculture.

Published by Elizabethp

RegenIowa restores the indigenous soil ecosystem and seeks to convert 1 million acres from conventional, fertilizer based farming to biological farming by 2025, in Iowa. This is done with soil conditioning, minerals and a combination of a broad biodiversity of local fungi, protozoans, bacteria, microscopic insects and other soil life. This microbiome cycles plant nutrients which feeds plants the way nature intended. Mitigating climate change and better food are additional benefits.

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