The Day the River Burned

The Cuyahoga River famously caught fire 50 years ago. It wasn't the first time. 
November 2, 1952

On the Sunday morning of Nov. 2, 1952, the Browns were in Detroit, getting ready to play the Lions at Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were making their last pushes in that year’s presidential election, which would be two days later. And readers of The Plain Dealer found a paper on their doorsteps with a banner headline blaring, “Oil Slick Fire Ruins Flats Shipyard.” A five-alarm blaze had summoned 11 pumpers, three hook and ladder companies, a fire boat and a rescue squad. Police sent 10 cars and an ambulance for traffic control.

Damage was estimated between $500,000 and $1.5 million, but firefighters knew it could have been much worse. The fire was dangerously close to the Standard Oil refinery, and nearby roads were cleared as a precaution. “If the fire had spread with Broadway full of automobiles, we never could have cleared it in time,” said Cleveland police Lt. Vincent Spisak in the next day’s Plain Dealer.

Detritus on the river had caught fire numerous times in the past, and it was normally accepted as the cost of doing business — literally, as the riverbanks were loaded with factories, refineries and other industry. But this was the point where people actually took notice that the river — which famously was said to ooze, not flow — was polluted. In 1968, Cleveland voters passed a $100 million bond issue for reader cleanup.

Ironically, readers of Time Magazine saw the 1952 conflagration all over again 17 years later. The Cuyahoga River caught fire again on June 22, 1969, but was brought under control in less than half an hour, and put out quickly enough that no photos exist of that blaze. So Time Magazine reached into its archives for a photo from the 1952 fire.

If the 1952 fire inspired local leaders to take water pollution seriously, then the 1969 fire had the same effect nationally. A year later, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order forming the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and two years after that, Congress passed the Clean Water Act.

The 1969 fire was, by most accounts, the 13th fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland history. There hasn’t been one since.