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How Ohio's Cuyahoga River Came Back To Life 50 Years After It Caught On Fire


This month, Cleveland is commemorating the anniversary of an instant it wishes never happened. And yet, 50 years after its river caught fire, the city has a lot to celebrate. The river's cleanup has become a model for the rest of the world.

Mark Urycki of member station WCPN reports.

MARK URYCKI, BYLINE: Jane Goodman is head of the Cuyahoga River Restoration. She says that nearly every environmental conference she attends, she sees the same thing.

JANE GOODMAN: I swear the first slide is the 1952 fire on our river.

URYCKI: Yes, a bigger oil slick fire occurred in '52, but the fire that really mattered was June 22, 1969. That was featured in Time magazine, along with that 1952 photo, and it helped kick off a national environmental movement, leading to the Clean Water Act and decades of jokes at Cleveland's expense. Here's Johnny Carson and Rich Little at Ronald Reagan's inaugural ball.


JOHNNY CARSON: Have you any idea how Governor Reagan plans to keep Russia from invading Poland?

RICH LITTLE: He's going to rename it Cleveland.


URYCKI: And there's that Randy Newman song.


RANDY NEWMAN: (Singing) Burn on, big river. Burn on.

URYCKI: Yeah, that one. Cuyahoga is an Iroquois word that means crooked river. The 100-mile-long V-shaped river starts as a pristine waterway in Amish country. It flows 50 miles south to Akron and takes a sharp turn north to Cleveland and out to Lake Erie. It's the last few miles where sewers and steel mills dumped their waste. It was basically a dead river in the 1960s, and it was killing Lake Erie.

Canoer and kayaker Gary Whidden remembers it well.

GARY WHIDDEN: Nobody would go in the water, and with good reason.

URYCKI: Cleveland and Akron residents have spent billions of dollars on gray and green infrastructure to keep pollution from entering the river.

GOODMAN: So the first job was clean it up to a point where life could happen and persist. And what we're working on now in the ship channel is new fish habitat.

URYCKI: But even after the major pollution sources ended, the fish were not doing great. Elaine Marsh of the Friends of the Crooked River says, in the mid-'90s, the Ohio EPA focused on the fish.

ELAINE MARSH: The major cause for why the fish weren't healthy was dams.

URYCKI: So then the jackhammers came out, and four of six dams were torn down. The first was in Kent, Ohio, in 2005. Kurt Princic of the Ohio EPA says the plan worked.

KURT PRINCIC: Immediate difference.

URYCKI: The pool that backed up behind the dam suddenly had oxygen again, and sport fish returned.

PRINCIC: We had northern pike and smallmouth bass - had come back to that dam pool that was dominated by catfish and carp.

URYCKI: Tearing down two dams in downtown Cuyahoga Falls has allowed that city to host whitewater kayaking races with Class V rapids.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Next stop is Michael Cole, No. 31, from Morgantown, W. Va.

URYCKI: When race director Dan Howdyshell was a kid, he saw a sluggish river that smelled bad, but not anymore.

DAN HOWDYSHELL: The river's definitely much cleaner now than it used to be, and people are really starting to realize it and flocking to the river to enjoy it.

URYCKI: On a recent weekend, two newcomers to the city, Adam and Liz Demanbro, are pulling their plastic kayaks out of the river.

LIZ DEMAMBRO: We actually bought a house in Cuyahoga Falls so we could be close to the river.

ADAM DEMAMBRO: We just loved it up here.

URYCKI: Craft breweries and restaurants are popping up along its banks. Other communities and park districts sharing the river are developing it as a national water trail by building access points and signage along its 100 miles. Ohio EPA's Kurt Princic says it's not yet time to declare victory, but the Cuyahoga has come a long way in 50 years.

PRINCIC: People view it as an asset now. Twenty, 30, 40 years ago, it was just a way to move waste. And let's celebrate the recovery because it really is - it is the poster child for the Clean Water Act.

URYCKI: Clevelanders have embraced the river and even the punchlines. Part of the anniversary celebration this week is a torchlight boat parade. For NPR News, I'm Mark Urycki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mark Urycki