Decades before Cuyahoga Valley officially became a national park, the severe pollution in its namesake river outraged and embarrassed the country, helping to spur the creation of the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Earth Day.
The Cuyahoga River is named for the Mohawk word meaning “crooked river,” but this central feature at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northeast Ohio is most famous for catching on fire in 1969 due to severe pollution that had accumulated over decades from toxic waste dumping.
The river had actually caught fire more than a dozen times since the 1800s, and the most severe fire in 1952 caused more than $1 million in damages. The problem gained national attention when Time magazine reported on the 1969 fire, calling the Cuyahoga the river that “oozes rather than flows.”
Outrage from the incident led to the establishment of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, and the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Congress established the site as the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in 1974 and later redesignated the area as Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 2000.
Water quality has improved significantly since the famous fire more than 40 years ago. Since then, Cuyahoga Valley National Park has become an urban success story, protecting more than 33,000 acres along the Cuyahoga River and helping to improve water quality within the Lake Erie water basin for millions of Cleveland and northeast Ohio residents. In 2013, the park was ranked among the most visited parks in the nation. Millions of people enjoy the park’s famous hiking and biking towpath, its scenic waterfalls, its extensive trails, its stunning rock ledges, and its historic railroad.
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Earlier this month, NPCA and the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park partnered to plant native trees along Furnace Run, a tributary of the Cuyahoga River. I worked with more than 80 local volunteers helping to mark the Earth Day anniversary by giving back to our “crooked river.” Overall, we planted 250 trees on a 22-acre site as a way to restore native habitat in the watershed. I didn’t mind getting a little dirty to do something positive for this gem of a park that played such an integral role in Ohio’s history.
About the author
LeAaron Foley Former Senior Outreach Coordinator
As Senior Outreach Coordinator for the Midwest Regional Office, Lee worked on developing relationships with community, civic, and business partners in many of this region's great national parks.