CLEVELAND--When the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the 13th and last time on June 22, 1969, the city of Cleveland’s reputation also went up in flames.
Songs were written about it from Randy Newman's ”Burn On” to REM’s “Cuyahoga.”
Cleveland became the laughing stock of the nation in movies, TV shows and stand up comedy acts across the country.
And Timothy Donovan, director of Canalway Partners, says a lot of it started with the original king of late night, Johnny Carson.
“He was the first; several of his writers were from Cleveland,” said Donovan, who told the joke as follows: “What’s the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic? Cleveland has a better orchestra.”
Other comedians including Yakov Smirnoff also poked fun at the city, but as it turns out Clevelanders would have the last laugh and the most fun with it.
“We have a really positive attitude about the city and how much it’s changed,” said Desiree Moyer at CLE Clothing Co.
Several locally-owned stores including CLE Clothing Co. created T-shirts and memorabilia poking fun at the burning river.
A couple CLE favorites are the “Burning River Surf Club” which features a skeleton and “It Came from the Cuyahoga” which has a swamp monster rising from the deep.
“Everybody laughs, like you’ll hear people just start giggling,” said Desiree.
Great Lakes Brewing also created the very popular Burning River Pale Ale in honor of the event and hosts the annual Burning River fundraiser each summer.
“We’re trying to flip the image of the burning river that was published in Time magazine,” said Saul Kliorys, sustainability manager.
But there’s a big reason why Clevelanders can now have fun with the history and that’s because of the major comeback and revitalization on the river. It was recently named “2019 River of the Year” by the conservation group American Rivers.
More than 60 species of fish have returned to the healthy waters and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Cleveland Metroparks are exponentially expanded parks and trails -- not only drawing national events, and conferences, but jobs and tourists too.
“Cleveland is a destination city,” said Emily Lauer, senior director of PR at Destination Cleveland. “We are experiencing revitalization; in terms of visitors, the sheer volume has increased the last eight years in a row. The last number was 18.5 million.”