Saturday, April 23, 2016

River Memories -- Cleveland's Cuyahoga River Fire Department

The first years of my life I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland called Maple Heights. It was a new development with new houses and new families, and lots of kids to play baseball and football with. The elementary school was a half block away, and beyond there was a forest, and great places to go sledding.

Nearly all my memories from that time are good ones. The 1950s was something of an age of innocence for kids like me. Only later did I come to learn that not everyone grew up with such a carefree existence.

There are, however, many experiences that we have that lay dormant and unremembered, but they are in there, only awaiting a trigger to unwrap them. One of these for me was our class trip to one of the fire station on the Cuyahoga River. That's right. The river had a fire department with four fire stations because this river was so polluted it would catch on fire.

One memory from that time was a political cartoon in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It showed a man and his son fishing from a little boat that was being eaten by chemicals as they sank. An editorial that day talked about how there were no fish left in Lake Erie because of the pollution and that the great lake's beaches were closed because the water was no longer safe for swimming. Something needed to be done.

Strange how far along the river's condition had gone before it was recognized that something needed to be done.

Here in Duluth the One River, Many Stories project has been in full swing with its focus on the St. Louis River upon whose shores reside the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior. As a result of attending a few of their meetings my memory of the Cuyahoga and that class trip to the river's fire station came up to the surface. I was probably in fifth or sixth grade at the time. And the stat I remember most vividly was that the river had caught fire four times that year.

Reflecting on that experience I decided to do a Google search to see how accurate all this was. Turns out that the quality of life for that river was far more shocking than I'd realized, and this fire business went on for a far longer time frame than I'd imagined. According to this story in Time the Cuyahoga's woes became a catalyst to draw attention to all our nation's waterways. In 1969.

My class trip was in 1962 or '63. And the river had been catching fire since the 1930s, if not earlier. That stat from this Tony Long article was my biggest surprise. The river had been catching fire all my life. Fortunately, those fire stations are now closed and Lake Erie is now living. The lesson there is that things really can change when people put their minds to it.

Today it's the 46th anniversary of Earth Day. Here in the Twin Ports they celebrate with an annual Art for Earth Day Gallery Hop. As we think about the future, let's each do our part. Don't give up the fight.

Photo Credit: Photo from Time.com story shows a fireboat tug putting out a fire on the Cuyahoga in 1952. Used without permission and will be replaced if requested. 

No comments: