Typical condition of the Cuyahoga River in 1952, with massive amounts of oil leaking into the river and standing on the surface for days or weeks.
Cleveland is a city without community.
The city was founded as a trading post in 1796. But unlike most early American settlements, which established a rich architectural, legal, and industrial history, Cleveland languished. The city didn't really begin to grow until the 1850s, and what really turned things around was the invention of modern steelmaking (known as the Bessemer process) in England in 1856. Steel took over Cleveland in the 1870s, dominating the Cuyahoga River valley. "Cleveland City", up on the bluffs overlooking the Cuyahoga east of the river, had a plan for a downtown built around Public Square. Ohio City, on the left bluffs, had no such urban planning. From the 1870s to the 1920s, more than 100 millionaires built magnificent mansions on Cleveland's Euclid Avenue.
But, as a community, Cleveland had little to bring it together. Take a look at any Google Map of the city: Notice the lack of public parks, like Boston's Emerald Necklace or D.C.'s National Mall or San Francisco's Candlestick Park or New York City's Central Park. Cleveland had nothing.
Cleveland's wealthy industrialists, sucking at the teat of libertarian mercantilism, loathed urban planning and zoning laws. And then, one day, they discovered that the lack of zoning meant that pawn shops, beauty salons, car dealerships, and motels had invaded Euclid Avenue. So the rich fled further east, into Euclid Heights and Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights. And they tore down Cleveland's great architectural legacy along Euclid Avenue.
By 1920, Cleveland was America's fourth-largest city. But what did it have to show for it? A vast industrial scar running down its center. No connection to the Lake Erie waterfront. No architectural history. Vast amounts of shoddy worker housing in the heart of the city. No cultural institutions to speak of.
Cleveland's greatest achievement were the vast steel mills lining the Cuyahoga River. The huge coal dumps churning out coke -- and smoke and ash and soot -- along the lakeshore. The automobile plants, with their 300-acre sheds.
But even that achievement didn't last. Cleveland's industry began dying in the 1950s. The city began losing hundreds of thousands of residents. By the 1970s, Cleveland had shed half its population, and nearly all its industry.
The legacy of Cleveland's -- well, somewhat twisted and awful pact with the Devil Known As Industry was a polluted and vile Cuyahoga River.
At least 13 fires are known to have occured on the Cuyahoga River. The first occurred in 1868, but the most famous is the 1969 fire, which appeared on the cover of Time magazine. It sparked passage of the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Act. Former EPA Administrator Carol Browner even remembers seeing photos of the fire, and recalling how deep an impact it had on her. At least two well-regarded environmental journals declared the eight-day fire was the worst in the nation's history.
It's all bunkum. Hooey. A myth. There are no known photographs of the 1969 fire, as it was fairly minor and was doused so quickly that local media never got a change to film or photograph it. The photograph that Time ran was from a 1952 fire -- not the June 1969 fire.
That the Cuyahoga -- that any industrial river -- catches fire is not news. Many rivers in America have caught fire, and the Cuyahoga did so because it had ridiculously steep bends in its lower 15 miles that allowed surface debris to accummulate easily and slowed the movement of oil and other pollutants. Before the end of the Civil War, there were 20 oil refineries in the Cleveland area, and only about 35 percent of crude oil was useable. The rest was considered "unusable" -- and this included what we now known as gasoline. This "unusable" portion was simply dumped into the Cuyahoga.
In the 1870s and 1880s, steamboat captains were warned not to shovel coals overboard, lest the water erupt in flames. The Cuyahoga caught fire at least three times in the latter half of the 19th century: 1868, 1883, and 1887. In 1912, a spark from a tugboat ignited oil leaking from the Standard Oil refinery. The gasoline-soaked soil caught fire, too, and the several explosions occurred at the refinery. Five men died, and several cargo ships and fireboats were destroyed in the conflagration. Another blaze hit the same spot in 1922, and there was another oil-caused river fire in 1930. In 1936, oil and floating debris on the river ignited and burned for five days. A patch of oil scum on the river was ignited by ash in 1941 and damaged an ore carrier, and a second such fire occured in 1948.
The worst Cuyahoga River fire was the 1952 blaze. Once more, Standard Oil was at fault. For years, the Standard Oil refinery had been leaking. At the time of the fire, a two-inch thick scum of oil existed shore-to-shroe on the river. On the afternoon of November 1, a patch of this oil ignited near the Great Lakes Towing Company shipyard. The exact cause of the blaze has never been determined. The river quickly spread, nearly reaching the opposite shore. The fire also spread downstream, burning the Jefferson Avenue Bridge. Flames reached nearly 50 feet into the air, and dense black smoke flowed into downtown. Thankfully, it was a Sunday, and there were almost no workers in the area (or scores of people could have been killed). The fire caused $1.5 million in damages, mostly to the shipyard and the bridge. Several boats docked at the shipyard and other nearby docks burned to the waterline, and a riverfront office building was gutted.
In comparison, the famous June 22, 1969, fire caused just $50,000 in damage, mostly to an adjacent railroad bridge.
Here are images from the 1952 fire.
Below is the site of the 1952 fire, as it looks today.