The Cuyahoga River: No Joke

Jon Roush blog photo
This is a guest blog from Jon Roush. Jon Roush has been executive vice president and chair of the board of The Nature Conservancy, president of The Wilderness Society, and a consultant to over 100 conservation groups. He is retired and lives in Portland, Oregon. To learn more about protecting clean water in rivers, check out our clean water program.

Cuyahoga River, OH | © Jon Ridinger

The Cuyahoga River still faces many challenges, but has come a long way since it caught fire in 1969 | © Jon Ridinger

In 1969, northeastern Ohio’s Cuyahoga River became a punch-line for late-night TV comedians. It was the river that caught on fire.

I couldn’t laugh about the fire or the jokes. The real river is more interesting.

In 1796, the state of Connecticut sold land bordering Lake Erie—the 3.3 million-acre Western Reserve–to the Connecticut Land Company. The company hired the entrepreneurial Moses Cleaveland to survey their holdings. He found the mouth of the Cuyahoga and, incidentally, founded the village that became Cleveland.

Cuyahoga is an Iroquois word for “crooked river.” The river winds through a cross-section of American landscapes: agrarian, small town, wild, and urban. The downstream stretch, where at least 13 fires have occurred since 1868, suffered the endless insult of anaerobic, oily sludge, sometimes several inches thick.

But a little way upstream is Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio’s only national park. It is a mosaic of natural land, historic restorations, and sustainable farms. Visitors from Akron, Cleveland, and beyond savor its waterfalls, hiking and biking trails, narrow ravines, floodplain, and historic sites.

When I was growing up in Akron, the hard working but beautiful Cuyahoga was my introduction to geography, history, and the fascination of rivers.

When the burning Cuyahoga made the cover of Time Magazine, the joke became a gift of sorts. An aroused public turned its vision on rivers. The Cuyahoga fires were important stimuli for the Clean Water Act, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the federal EPA and the Ohio EPA.

By the 1998, the river had recovered enough so that the EPA designated it an American Heritage River. Steel mills’ departure from Cleveland may account for some of the improvement, but regulation played a major role.

Still, sewer overflows, stagnation caused by dams, and nonpoint runoff continue to cause problems. The EPA classifies the Cuyahoga watershed as one of the Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

As it has for two hundred years, the Cuyahoga provides transportation, fish, irrigation, recreation, and personal fulfillment for visitors and for the million-or-so residents of this diverse, bustling watershed. A visit to its banks is inspiring, not only for the beauty of the river but also for its many layered story and its promise for the future. Its comeback is not yet complete, but more than ever, the Cuyahoga delivers utility, recreation, education, beauty, and hope.