Monday, June 22, 2009

40 years later: Burn on, big river!

Water on fire: It’s elementally wrong, like earth made of air. So when an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River caught fire on June 22, 1969, 40 years ago this summer (see top photo), the rest of America laughed instead of recoiled: What kind of city is so estranged from nature that its water burns?

But fire and water are part of Cleveland: the steel mill’s flame, the inland sea we call a lake. Of course waves and flames came together in a town built on industry, sweaty work in furnaces and an oil baron’s headquarters on a watery highway.

Today, we have done more than clean up the river. We’ve made our most embarrassing scandal a defiant part of our identity. Our pride can’t be extinguished.

So we're commemorating the Cuyahoga River fire's legacy in the July issue of Cleveland Magazine. This essay by Mark Winegardner, author of the novel Crooked River Burning, explores why an industrial accident became the ultimate Cleveland metaphor and why the river fire became internationally infamous -- blame Time, which published a photo of a Nov. 1952 Cuyahoga River fire (second pic from top) and passed it off as 1969's.

To read the rest of our feature package on the 40th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire, pick up a copy of the July issue of Cleveland Magazine -- in bookstores and subscribers' mailboxes this week, at newsstands in July -- or visit starting next week.

For more on the 40th anniversary of the river fire, check this blog later today for a report from this afternoon's Cuyahoga River Re-Birthday Party, at Settler's Landing under the Detroit-Superior bridge.

If you're in the mood to celebrate, stop by the party from 2 to 8 pm. Also, stop by Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Ohio City for their party, from 4:30 to 10:30 pm, a preview event for their Burning River Fest, to be held Aug. 15. If you'd like to know more about the river's history, we also recommend the documentary The Return of the Cuyahoga, showing tomorrow night at 9 pm on WVIZ.

(If you'd like to link to Winegardner's essay, you can use this shortcut:

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