Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History

By Ted Steinberg | Go to book overview

15
SHADES OF GREEN

Spontaneous combustion is not something that is supposed to happen to a river, unless it happens to be the Cuyahoga, an 80-mile long stream that cuts through the center of Cleveland, Ohio, before debouching into Lake Erie. The worst fire on the Cuyahoga raged through a shipyard, seriously burned three tugboats, and resulted in excess of 500,000 dollars in damage. Exactly what caused the river to ignite that day is not totally clear. What is clear is that water was not the only substance flowing in the river that day. “We have photographs that show nearly six inches of oil on the river,” Bernard Mulcahy, a fire prevention expert, said after the blaze. 1

It was 1952. American soldiers were battling in Korea and Dwight D. Eisenhower was poised to win the presidency in a landslide victory. The Cuyahoga, meanwhile, was merely repeating itself. A half-century earlier, on December 31, 1899, two men operating a Cleveland railroad bridge were minding their own business when one of them noticed, in the words of a newspaper account, “a great volume of smoke intermingled with flame rising from the river.” The fire, however, caused no significant damage. 2

So when fire broke out yet again on the river on June 22, 1969, no one in Cleveland was probably all that surprised. Although a picture appeared on the front page of the city's main newspaper, the actual story detailing the fire lay buried deep inside. “It was strictly a run of the mill fire,” said Chief William Barry of the Cleveland Fire Department. To this day, Clevelanders must wonder why the 1969 fire, which did merely one-tenth the damage of the 1952 conflagration, became such a focus of national attention, solidifying, it might be added, the city's reputation as the “Mistake by the Lake.” Later that summer, the Cleveland disaster became a poster child for the ills of modern America when Time magazine unveiled a new “Environment” section with a report on the sorry state of the Cuyahoga. “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with sub-surface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” What changed to make a routine event in the local history of a gritty industrial city into an environmental cause célèbre? 3

As the story of the Cuyahoga suggests, the culture of consumption with its predilection for oil left a giant footprint on the nation's landscape. It brought about everything from the devastation of rivers and draining of wetlands to declines in biodiversity, ground water, public grazing lands, and air quality to the degradation of manure from a farm asset into a major pollution headache to the transformation of the very landscape itself into a dichromatic expanse of black and green.

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