"The fire was caused by the water. It flooded some place where was stored some gasoline and carried it down on top of the water to those stills above Wilson Av. to the right as we go in to Cleveland. The water got high enough to carry it in to their fires where it ignited and went down among the tanks below, and as they got hot they blew up and gave their contents to the flames. . . They put timbers across that big creek and threw wood, lumber and anything they found handiest above them into the water and so stopped the surface water and Oil from running down, but they had several acres of burning Oil above. It commenced burning Saturday and we could see the light still Monday morning."
The above account by Alexander Snow in a letter to his son, Fred, wasn't from 1969 or even the 1950s. This blaze touched off on Saturday, February 3, 1883. This was just one fire of the dozen or more on the Cuyahoga since 1868. During the late 19th Century, the river was “so flammable that if steamboat captains shoveled glowing coals overboard, the water erupted in flames” according to author Ron Chernow. Boats were to blame for several of the fires on the sludge-covered river.
Recorded incidents of the river in flames occurred in the following years: 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1930, 1941, 1948, 1950, 1952, ad 1969. That's more than a century of stories of "the burning river." Yet we only seem to talk about the 1969 fire which led to stricter EPA regulations ad the Clean Water Act. Time and National Geographic magazines widely reported on the last Cuyahoga River fire, which helped it gain such notoriety. In recent time, it inspired "Burning River Pale Ale" made by the Great Lakes Brewing Company.
Rivers flowing through all major industrial cities have been polluted since the mid-1800s when manufacturing boomed. Over the years, the Cuyahoga hasn't been the only "burning river" in the United States. Dearborn, Michigan's Rouge River suffered from several fires. On June 8, 1926, a fire broke out in the Jones Falls area of Baltimore, Maryland, blowing manhole covers off sewer lines and sending a river of flames to the harbor.The Buffalo River burned in 1968 (and July 29, 1880) as did the Chicago River on April 18, 1899 (and many other times, including as recently as 2008) and Philly's Schuylkill River in the 1950s. For as log as mankind has been dumping flammable liquids into our waterways, we've been creating floating infernos.
To call the Cuyahoga the "Burning River" might be accurate, but it's a name synonymous with so many other rivers. Perhaps Cleveland can claim the title for the sheer number of fires on its river. Today, those of use who've been along the Cuyahoga River anywhere between Akron and Cleveland know full well that it's still polluted. Perhaps it won't flare up again, but the root-beer-float-style foam that churns up in some areas is enough to make most people think twice about fishing there. The "Crooked River" is aptly named on so many levels, but we can't say that 1969 was the only year to immortalize a city as the home of a watery inferno.
Most of the information on Cuyahoga River fires was taken from Jonathan Adler's 2003 article 'Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing a History of Environmental Protection' in the Fordham Environmental Law Journal, Vol. XIV, pages 89-146. The quote attributed to Alexander Snow was published in the book History of the Family of Benjamin Snow (1907; page 126).