Edward Kennedy, the senator from Massachusetts, was on the cover in a neck brace along with a bold headline: “THE KENNEDY DEBACLE: A Girl Dead, A Career in Jeopardy.” Inside was an exposé of the shocking events of 12 days earlier, when Kennedy, driving home from a party with a political aide named Mary Jo Kopechne, plunged his car off a bridge into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island. He survived; she did not—and Kennedy’s inexplicable nine-hour delay in notifying police was threatening his political career.
The scandal almost overshadowed the historic moment that occurred just two days later on July 20, 1969: a pair of Apollo astronauts landing on the surface of the moon. TIME dedicated a nine-page spread in the same issue to the groundbreaking “giant step.”
Also in the science section was a short article, about a river that caught fire in Ohio, that would prove to be almost as significant for a very different reason. Where NASA’s moon program focused on the challenges of space, the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire highlighted problems right here on Earth—and lit the spark of the American environmental movement.
From Sanctuary to Cesspool
The 85-mile Cuyahoga River—meaning “crooked” in an Iroquoian language, due to its V-shaped course—was formed 13,000 years ago from one of the last retreating glaciers in the present-day United States. The river teemed with fish and plants, serving as a primary resource for Native peoples and wildlife as early as 200 BCE. Then European fur traders arrived in the 16th century and founded trading posts; the following century saw settlers establishing permanent farms and towns along the river, with Cleveland, located where the Cuyahoga flows into Lake Erie, the valley’s largest city.
Eventually, the rise of factories and large-scale shipping during the Industrial Revolution made the Cuyahoga a popular dumping ground for chemical waste. When John D. Rockefeller established the Standard Oil Company in 1870 and grew it into a vast network of Ohio-based refineries, residents called Cuyahoga “a rainbow of many different colors” thanks to the petroleum-based substances that flowed freely into it. The pollution symbolized a thriving industry, which meant jobs and economic prosperity for the state. But Cleveland Mayor Rensselaer R. Herrick wasn’t so enthralled; he said the factory-lined river was “an open sewer through the center of the city.”
Thus, it didn’t come as a shock when an oil slick on the Cuyahoga caught fire on the morning of June 22, 1969. It wasn’t even the first time.
Smoke on the Water
The Cuyahoga River had caught fire in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and 1952. Losses ranged from a few thousand to over a million dollars. In 1912, a spark from a passing boat ignited floating sludge near Standard Oil’s dock, causing several explosions and fires. In 1922, just after Cleveland’s water department had tested the river and Lake Erie due to complaints that the drinking water tasted like carbolic acid, the same dock was the scene of another blaze [PDF].
In 1952, a two-inch-thick oil slick as wide as the river itself ignited near the Great Lakes Towing Company shipyard, enveloping the facilities and a major bridge in flames and causing between $500,000 and $1.5 million in damage ($5.1 million to $15.3 million in today’s dollars).
Yet nothing was done: polluters operated with virtual impunity. “Some river!” TIME wrote. “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” The amount of flammable material in the river was so immense that a 1968 Federal Water Pollution Control Administration report found parts of the Cuyahoga to be functionally dead, with little oxygen and “no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.” The same year, Cleveland’s voters passed a $100 million bond program to begin cleaning up the river and improve the sewage system to prevent further pollution.
Then the river caught fire again. But compared to earlier conflagrations, the 1969 event was minor. Some flames went five stories high, but firefighters got it under control in just 20 minutes, and it resulted in $50,000 in losses. The fire was contained so quickly that the press didn’t have time to take photos. Ironically, the image used in the 1969 TIME article was of the much more destructive 1952 fire.
The millions of readers who picked up TIME for the scoop on Chappaquiddick and the moon landing likely saw the story on the Cuyahoga River fire as well. The ugly spectacle seemed to epitomize the country’s environmental crisis, in which there were few federal laws to protect America’s air, water, and other natural resources, and it fueled public concern over the environment and pollution in the United States.
Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes held a press conference on the Cuyahoga riverbank one day after the fire, arguing for policies that protected the waters and the people who lived around it. He and his brother Louis Stokes, a Congressman representing a Cleveland-area district, lobbied Congress to regulate polluters. Coupled with the national attention from the TIME story and the nascent environmental movement in the U.S., the Cuyahoga River fire pushed lawmakers to pass the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, a cabinet-level body overseeing pollution regulations, among many other responsibilities.
As part of the nationwide events of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Cleveland State University President Harold L. Enarson led a march of 1000 students to “reclaim” the Cuyahoga River. Today, it’s no longer a dumping site, but a place where you can fish, kayak, and even stand-up paddle board. Thanks to two unrelated events in July 1969, which should have overshadowed it, the Cuyahoga River fire rose to the forefront of public consciousness in a big way—and now symbolizes the progress we’ve made.