Watershed: How a Photo Sparked a Revolution

Jul 15, 2019

When the Cuyahoga River caught fire 50 years ago it helped spark an environmental movement in America. However, there was little coverage at the time and no known photographic evidence of the actual blaze.

A photo that appeared in a 1969 Time Magazine article is often attributed to the fire.

For our latest story in our series Watershed, a look at the power of photography and how it’s shaped our understanding of the burning river.

It’s a beautiful, cool morning when Ian Adams and I take a walk along the Cuyahoga. As a professional nature photographer, Adams has a keen eye and some incredible stories.

Like the time he scrambled up to a remote lookout point over the river for the perfect shot of icicles.

"I had the most hair raising hike imaginable for a quarter of a mile in the dead of winter along the edge of the frozen Cuyahoga River. Scrambling over boulders and ice, at some point if you missed (your footing) you’d slide straight down into the river," Adams said. 

Pictures like his tell the beauty of the Cuyahoga, but 50 years ago photographers were telling a different kind of story.

The Drama of a Photo
It was August 1969, nearly two months after the last fire on the river, when much of the world outside Ohio was introduced to the Cuyahoga. All through the drama of one photograph.

In the black and white image, unnatural flames lap against a fireboat near the end of the so-called "crooked river" in Cleveland. That famous picture was in Time Magazine.

The only problem… it was from a different fire 17 years earlier in 1952

Bill Barrow combs through historical photos of the Cuyahoga River.
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU

Bill Barrow with the Cleveland Memory Project at Cleveland State University said the Cuyahoga had caught fire several times even before that. 

"So when ’69 came along it was such an everyday thing nobody even took a picture of the ’69 fire when it was happening," Barrow said as he showed me dozens of historical photographs of the polluted Cuyahoga. 

He and his team have catalogued thousands of photos and press clippings telling Cleveland's history.

"In the last 50 years, while people have been looking for photos of the fire, they’ve had to settle for pictures of earlier fires." 

Time Magazine's spotlight
Such was the case for the Time article in ‘69 that called the Cuyahoga River so toxic it "oozed, rather than flowed."

With language so vivid, it's no wonder the magazine chose the dramatic photo of the 1952 fire.

"It's captioned 'Boat caught in flaming Cuyahoga.' What they didn’t include in the caption was this is not the 1969 fire, it's the 1952 fire," said Arrye Rosser, Interpretive & Education Specialist with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. 

Rosser co-curated the photography exhibit "Crooked River Contrasts." It brings together historical and modern photos of the Cuyahoga’s pollution and restoration.

Rosser said without a clear caption in the '69 Time article, people assumed the massive fire was a current photo.

"The whole story of the fire got a bit garbled with this Time Magazine article."

This photo of Mayor Carl Stokes holding a press conference on the banks of the Cuyahoga River after the 1969 fire was featured in Time.
Credit City of Cleveland Collection

Pulling out her own copy of the 50-year-old magazine she bought off eBay, Rosser flips back the 40 or so pages to get to the story.

In addition to the unlabeled fire photo, there’s a photo of then-Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes holding a press conference on the banks of the Cuyahoga the day after the '69 fire.  

"So I think this picture of him with microphones right in his face, that’s like Carl Stokes all over. This is how that became a national story. And the fact that they chose this image, I think just amplified the story," Rosser said.

The attention of the Cuyahoga River catching fire is widely considered a catalyst for curbing pollution and leading to the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.

"Why did a couple paragraphs in the back of an issue of Time Magazine in 1969 have such power for 50 years?" One reason, Rosser thinks, could be the cover story of that August issue of Time Magazine. 

CVNP's Arrye Rosser poses along the Cuyahoga with her copy of the 1969 Time Magazine.

Nowhere is the Cuyahoga or environmentalism mentioned. Instead, it’s a black and white picture of a young Ted Kennedy, just after the Chappaquiddick car crash that left a young woman dead.

"Everybody read it. And this is kind of where people who didn’t live in the Cleveland area started to understand about the Cuyahoga River fire."

That national attention helped fuel the idea that Cleveland really was the "mistake on the lake."

"So I think that just has annoyed Clevelanders for 50 years. And I think a lot of what’s going on with the celebration this year is trying to tell a different story of the river," Rosser said.

Capturing the Cuyahoga's restoration
I get a firsthand look at how the story has changed as wildlife photographer Jim Roetzel leads me through waist high grass to one of his favorite birding spots along the river.

He points out a red winged blackbird on its way to a nest with breakfast. 

"She just flew out with food in her mouth," he points out while propping up his camera gear. 

With decades behind telephoto lenses as long as an arm, Roetzel has photographed everything from fall 

Photographer Jim Roetzel hikes his camera gear to a remote spot along the Cuyahoga.
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU

leaves changing along the river to intimate butterfly migrations.

From the water’s chemistry, to the fish that call it home, photography tells the story of a rebounded Cuyahoga.

"Everywhere you go people are bragging up the river. And good," Roetzel says as he sets up his camera along the banks of the Cuyahoga. 

Because what better way to tell a comeback story than through a camera lens?