On 50th anniversary of Cuyahoga’s burning, full story comes to light

We’re starting to understand the major implications of the 1969 fire, thanks to UC Professor David Stradling

By Michelle Flanagan

Fifty years after the last time the Cuyahoga River burned, the more complete story – of the river, the people around it, grassroots action, the subsequent creation of the EPA, and Mayor Carl Stokes – has come to the surface. And, as always, the past has lessons for what we need to do in the present to protect the future.

That story has become available largely thanks to the research and dedication of University of Cincinnati Professor of History David Stradling and his brother, Richard Stradling, who published "Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland" (Cornell University Press, 2015).

Richard, a journalist, was completing his mid-career masters degree at Ohio State University, where his thesis revolved around press coverage of the various Cuyahoga river fires—a story that sparked his history professor brother's interest.

“I recognized a story that wasn’t fully excavated,” Stradling said. The excavating process was possible largely due to a Taft Center Fellowship, which allowed him to spend a year writing the book, and having access to the resources only a Research I Institution can offer.

Writing "Where the River Burned" allowed the two brothers to combine their strengths, with David focusing on archival work and Richard interviewing individuals who had been present around the time of the fire.

“I think this is one of those stories that people have mentioned for a long time but haven’t known that much about,” said Stradling. He further explained that while it’s never totally gone away from public consciousness, we’ve failed to understand the full story.

Changing definitions of environmentalism

Uncovering that story came with its share of surprises, but Stradling said the most surprising was the level of engagement of Carl Stokes in environmental issues.

“Environmental history has been mostly focused on environmentalism as a suburban or rural thing,” said Stradling. “In reading the work of Carl Stokes (the then-mayor of Cleveland), there’s a whole new language around the environmental crisis of the 1960s and 70s that wasn’t represented in the way historians conceptualized environmentalism as a movement.

“Even though I don’t think Carl Stokes would identify himself as an environmentalist – he didn’t call himself that – and a lot of the people he represented wouldn’t have called themselves environmentalists, the things they were advocating for were clearly related to improving the urban environment,” Stradling explained.

A&S Assistant Dean of Humanities David Stradling (left) and brother Richard, co-authors of Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland.

A&S Assistant Dean of Humanities David Stradling (left) and brother Richard, co-authors of Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland.

As the brothers dug into the full story, Stradling worked to highlight the theme of leadership in cities, and particularly in African American communities, around improving environments in order to improve the overall lives of residents.

The river last burned on June 22, 1969. Fifty years later, Stradling has realized that academia often underestimates the ways that the urban and environmental crises reinforce each other.

“The urban crisis was not going to be solved without also solving the environmental crisis,” he said. “Now, as we think about the recovery of American cities, Cleveland and Cincinnati included, a good bit of the unrecognized credit should be given to improvements in the environment.” Stradling points to several decades ago, when cities were so polluted that most people moved away from them, compared to today when people are moving back – largely thanks to planned green space and improved air quality. 

Legislative pressure

Bolstering that foundational understanding has also led to a deeper understanding of the implications of the 1969 fire and subsequent outcry.

While some grassroots actions were already being taken, efforts to clean up the city and the river multiplied in the fire’s aftermath. Eventually, this led to major legislative wins, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and even helped spur the creation of the EPA.

“Those pieces of legislation, as flawed as they were and as slow as it was to implement them, they worked. That’s part of what we’re celebrating by that 50 year interim. We can’t suggest it was perfect, but it did work.”

“One of the things I found most impressive about Carl Stokes is that he had a very clear understanding of the way the world worked. He understood who his allies were and who his enemies were,” Stradling said. “Unfortunately for him, and urban America – particularly African American urban America – the enemies far outweighed the allies, with one exception, and that’s the federal government.” 

Promotion for a lecture by David and Richard Stradling, authors of Where the River Burned.

Promotion for a lecture by David and Richard Stradling, authors of "Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland."

After being ostracized by the majority of power holders in his area, Stokes successfully testified before Congress to urge federal involvement in pollution control, eventually became allies with the Democrat-controlled federal government, and gained the backing of the Johnson administration . “That was one of the reasons why that liberal regime in Washington helped create this raft of legislation, but much of that has been undone,” said Stradling.

Today’s federal government continues to become more partisan. But despite a lack of environmental allyship at top levels of government, there is still hope for change.

Stokes knew he could make change at the municipal level, a strategy cities are still using.   “There are a lot of cities, including Cincinnati and Cleveland, that have enacted their own legislation, that are taking their own steps to combat even global problems. You wish you had leadership at other levels of government, but we don’t. So thinking about the ways in which municipalities can actually be leaders, which is the inverse of how we traditionally think effective policy gets set,” said Stradling.  

A guidebook for today

While it’s been half a century, our challenges are much the same.

“Now it’s the more complicated stuff that needs to be done, in every way, including politically, Stradling said. “We haven’t learned our lesson [about environment versus economy]. There are no permanent wins in the environmental arena. There are always people who can profit from polluting or destroying public spaces, and because that profit is always there, you have to be always vigilant. There are no permanent wins.”

“For me,” says Stradling, “the number one take home lesson should be how much work people put into improving the Cuyahoga River’s ecology and reducing water pollution generally. These things don’t happen automatically. Just because the river caught fire, it’s not like everybody had an a-ha moment and decided to fix the problem. There was a lot of work that was being done before the river caught fire and a lot of work that had to be done both inside legislative bodies but also lots of activism around cleaning up the environment.

“You can tell a simple story about things getting bad and a river catching fire and then they passed legislation and things got better. But that simple story leaves out all that hard work. That’s part of what my brother and I were trying to do ­– recognize that work.”

David Stradling and Where the River Burned have been featured in the Ohio v. The World Podcast, BYU Radio, The Plain Dealer, the New York Times, History, and Smithsonian Magazine, among others. You can buy the book here.  

Featured image at top: Discolored water from sewage discharged into the Cuyahoga River from a city pump station, July, 1973. Photo credit: Frank J. Aleksandrowicz, EPA.

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