CLEVELAND- “Don’t fall in the river." That was the advice given to every new employee or person working near the Cuyahoga River back in 1969.
“Occasionally, we'd see a guy swimming in the river and you’d say this guy's gonna kill himself because it was so terrible,” said Frank Samsel, founder of Samsel Supply.
Industrial waste, fuel, oil byproducts, chemicals and raw sewage had been dumped into the water since the start of the industrial revolution.
“Fires were common on the river,” said Samsel, “So it was just, 'oh, they had another fire.'"
So when it caught for the last time June 22, 1969, Samsel and other witnesses considered it just another day on the job.
Over the years, there had been at least 12 other significant documented fires on the polluted river going back to the mid 1800s.
“I hadn’t had much experience with the river up until that time so it was scary to say the least,” said Tim Donovan, director of Canalway Partners, who worked on the river as a teenager. “As a general rule if you fell in the river you went to the hospital so you don’t fall in the river.”
The fire that day was small and quickly extinguished, then, in an instant, the city’s reputation was torched. Time Magazine published a picture of a much larger fire from 1952 and Cleveland became synonymous with polluted rivers burning.
Lost in the article was the fact that Cleveland had already passed a $100-million bond issue to clean up the river and Mayor Carl Stokes and Congressman Louis Stokes were fighting for federal funding and the Clean Water Act.
Mr. Samsel also had already begun outfitting a boat to remove the toxic waste, using a Vactor Truck in an innovative way -- to basically vacuum out the pollution.
“Now it’s commonplace, but it was a new type of technology back then, “ said Samsel, who mounted it onto a 56-foot fishing boat salvaged from the bottom of Lake Erie. “ And we went to work... the crew and I felt we were accomplishing something.”
The Army veteran, who served in Germany, named the boat the Putzfrau which means “cleaning lady” and they went right to work.
Most of the spills, pollution and debris were removed in just seven years. However, reducing the sewage and restoring wildlife would take much longer.
“We not only invested in cleaning up that river, but we invested in amenities like the park systems,” said Donovan. “We didn’t have a national park and we have a national park today.”
The Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Cleveland Metroparks have massively expanded and will begin completion on the last legs of the Towpath Trail and Cleveland Foundation Centennial Lake Link Trail on the 50th anniversary of the last fire, completing the greenway.
More than 60 species of fish now live in the river and are healthy enough to eat.
Other wildlife has also returned from beavers to birds of prey and in 2019, the Cuyahoga was named river of the year by the conservation group American Rivers.
“There’s certain pride for the city that we have come back and reclaimed the river for a very positive role,” said Donovan.