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Memories of the Cuyahoga River

2009 June 22

This month is the 40th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. I was born and grew up in Cleveland on the east side. The 1969 river fire occurred between my junior and senior years of high school. I remember being embarrassed that this could happen in my home town. I remember the beaches near the city being closed and traveling all the way out to Mentor to go swimming. While in college, during the early 1970’s I worked on an ore boat that occasionally docked on the river and in the Republic Steel mill. The river was a place to work.

After working in Chicago briefly, I returned to Cleveland in 1976. I moved to the west side of Cleveland , which for an eastsider was another world. The Cuyahoga River and the Flats became a meeting area for me, as I traveled between the west side and my east side roots. In the later 1970’s and early 1980’s I remember the Flats became the entertainment hotspot. Outdoor concerts were held on Fridays after work and it seemed as though everyone was there. I meet my wife at Fagans, the old east side bar, when it still had that shot and a beer feel. The river still looked dirty but oil slicks were rare and it didn’t catch fire anymore.

image of boat that looks like a duck and is made from milk cartons. This milk carton boat was built and raced by some of the EPA staff here in the Cleveland office during the Krazy Kraft Race which was part of the Flats Fest in July 1991.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s I was busy working and raising a family. Although I had settled in Bay Village , my family and I continued to come to the river. Shooters, the Powerhouse, Goodtime cruises, river festivals with milk carton boat races and concerts brought my family and I back to the river. Upstream the Cuyahoga Valley National Park became a biking destination. Now the bike trails go from Akron to the lake.

I’ve noticed the river has begun to look scenic. When did it become a place to take people visiting from out of town instead of a punch line for a Cleveland joke? I don’t know, but I’m happy it did.

If you have photos or memories of the Cuyahoga River either today or way back when, please share them with the rest of us along with your stories either by commenting directly on our blog, or posting your photos to our Flickr page at

Mark Moloney works in EPA’s Cleveland Office and is an environmental engineer who has been with the agency since 1974. He does multimedia investigations and other projects for the Enforcement Compliance Assurance Team and in the early 90s became the EPA’s to the Cuyahoga River RAP Organization.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Matt Liebman permalink
    June 25, 2009

    I grew up in Cleveland Heights, and was 12 when the river burned. Although I am a news junkie and always has been, I have no memories of the river burning. 1969 was as everyone knows, a turbulent year in America (and its not just because the Indians were probably 20 games out of first place in June), and I am looking forward to reading these articles, because for some reason, I missed it when it happened. Of course, several years later, when Cleveland became a national joke with our Mayor Ralph Perk, and then the city defaulted (which is another story, starring Dennis Kucinich, who was unjustly blamed in my opinion), this was just one of the reasons. Thanks for those memories!

  2. Marilyn permalink
    August 23, 2010

    I would love to read more comments from people who were there or have heard stories from their parents, friends, etc… I was a senior in high school in southern CA when this happened. This storie was probably buried underneath the mountain of Manson stories. I ‘ve never heard of this until today when I was reading a list someone had posted on Good List Daily and mentioned a walk along the Cuyahoga River as one of the things they were grateful for. I googled the river to see how beautiful it was and found story after story about the river burning.
    I’d rather read first hand experiences.

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