The Sins of the Fathers
On a clear day, I could easily glimpse Cleveland’s skyline from a high ridge a little south of my hometown. Though I would later prefer my rural perch, at the time I would’ve rather claimed a piece of that hazy city foiled by a winking sea. Nothing ever seemed to happen in sleepy suburbia, with its chain stores and restaurants. I was filled with longing and Cleveland was my light at the end of the dock.
Granted, cars cut quickly through Ohio’s flat fields, rolling over a long slab of asphalt on their way to Chicago or New York City. But meandering southwest in Greater Cleveland are bucolic farms, quaint villages, canyons, waterfalls. Long before there was a Cleveland, this ridge stood along Ohio’s divisive fold. If I really wanted, I could hike the ridge east to Erie, Pennsylvania. If I were to go west, I’d run parallel to the shore all the way to Cleveland. From there, I could hike a jagged path to Kentucky, watching the rainwaters tip on one side into the Ohio River and pour into Lake Erie on the other.
Geologists call this the Portage Escarpment, and they credit it with once pushing an icy colossus southward. As it went, the hulk gutted the region, plowing up as much ferny forest and rock as it could. They say that during this time, one’s ears would not have been able to bear the deafening roar of cracks, snaps, and groans. When the heaving hulk began to soften into gravelly gumbo and finally retreated for good, it left a crooked, U-shaped crack in the land about 90 miles long. Into this crack slipped its liquids and solids, laying the foundations of Cleveland’s industry: its shale, its limestone, its grit, and its power.
Those who first lived along the river would shape their pursuits according to its course and riches. Because of its meandering path, each of these inhabitants had given it different names, though all were variations upon one: Cuyahoga. The name sometimes meant “crooked river” or “the place of the jawbone.” It was the Cayagaga to the Mowhawks and the Diohaga to the Delaware. Along its edge, rustic farmers helped to burrow the Ohio and Erie Canal, which aided the river in moving men and their mercantile interests. It was along this river where Rockefeller refined his oil and the stone was quarried for Cleveland’s great houses, where Samuel Mather ran the ore trade and Charles Otis blasted the steel.
I didn’t know much about the Cuyahoga when I embarked with my parents on a river cruise one Saturday in 1976. The idea was to drift through the arteries of Cleveland’s industrial heart, to see old warehouses, glide through its viaducts, and squint aloft at marvelous lift bridges opening against their towers. Our own little vessel and any number of sluggish barges entering from Lake Erie would pass through these skeletal wonders. But once the tour began, I could not very well focus on these giant window sashes. Something else had hooked me, and it pulled me below deck for the duration of the voyage. There I sat, with my chin on the railing, horridly fixated on the noxious substance beneath the boat, an opaque floor resembling a solid slab of black tar. It absorbed nothing but the stale hot breath of the sun. Could this be water? There was no transparency. It didn’t sparkle in the sun. Nor did it move, not even a ripple. Upon it, the boat did not sail. It slid. And there was a stench a little like rotten fruit tossed in urine and rubber cement. If someone had told me there was even one fish living in that vile river, I would’ve panicked. Worse was the idea that I might touch the surface; in that case, my heart would surely burst.
Of all the horrors I was capable of imagining, this one defied me. This wasn’t an ordinary ghoul or a sour-faced puppet. This was supposed to be a river, but it resembled volcanic ooze. If I were to offer it my toe, it would swallow me up into its toxic mold, and there I’d be, suspended between an old shopping cart and a partially digested corpse, a real horror-show fruitcake. If you don’t believe me, just ask former reporter Richard Ellers about the time he breathlessly dislodged a gooey hand from this black lagoon.
When my mind finally stopped reeling, I wondered how the residue from excessive enterprise could strangle a river, one that allegedly took 500 million years to carve, that developed from seismic shifts, freezes, and thaws, that had nourished all kinds of creatures for the past 10,000 years, and that was now giving its resources to the very ones who were killing it. Was this the same river I saw much further upstream, in the valley, where blue herons speared leaping fish in dazzling, translucent pools and where turtles sunbathed upon rocky gilt? Did these creatures sense the looming glut of this black malevolence slithering downstream? Who in the time of Jefferson could’ve guessed that such a river could be so tragic a victim of mortality, shot through with crippling disease?
As it turned out, I was not the only one who noticed. In fact, I was a latecomer. I had soon learned that the mouth of the Cuyahoga was already much cleaner than it had been in more than a decade, and getting cleaner. In fact, the efforts to revive the perishing river began even before it caught fire in 1969, when floating oil-soaked debris caught the spark of a train passing over a bridge. This was the event that was published in Time magazine and launched an onslaught of insults Clevelanders endure to this day. Make the mistake of telling a person you’re from Cleveland, and you’ll hear the same sarcastic retort, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Or, you’ll be reminded that your town is a “mistake on the lake” or the “nation’s armpit.” These epithets have been so customary for so long that no one seems to remember their origins. As Moses instructed the Israelites, “God visits the sins of the fathers upon their children to the third and fourth generations.” It is no different for us.
In truth, the 1969 fire was the last of thirteen going back to 1868, and it wasn’t by any means the worst. That terrible prize goes to the year 1952, and an arresting image from that fire was the one featured in Time. On that day in early November, Standard Oil sprung a leak that formed a two-inch thick oil slick stretching across the river’s width. Whatever the catalyst, it caused an explosion, out of which a blustery Godzilla from industrial hell puffed with black plumes. It mushroomed 300 feet into the sky. Gripped by its own fury, it devoured countless blighted structures before it was effectively put down, while the smokestacks in the distance stood quietly dumbfounded.
What Faustian bargain was made to set a river ablaze? How apocalyptic it must’ve seemed in the children’s eyes. But it didn’t often strike their parents this way. For most, this was the price of industry, and it hadn’t been that long since they had watched their own parents struggle in the Great Depression. These adults of 1952 were willing to let the river burn repeatedly if it meant gainful employment, and they did. But it was their children who would begin the Earth Day traditions, who supported Mayor Carl Stokes in the establishment of the Clean Water Act, and who would push for an Environmental Protection Agency.
The forefathers had, admittedly, put Cleveland on the map and their parents to work, but they had also left their progeny with a big fat mess. And so, with great hearts and strong stomachs, the inheritors of bald progress began the brutal cycle of dredging, vacuuming, and dumping.
What despair they must’ve felt! Aside from the expected chemical swirl, there were ungodly surprises. Tumefied rats the size of miniature schnauzers drifted among the debris. Oxygen bubbled through the river’s greasy pudding skin. From an array of collectables surfaced a couple of screen doors, a picnic bench, and several old tires. These trinkets, however, proved more amusing than appalling. A nearby slaughterhouse was regularly pouring into the river a putrid soup of grease, entrails, and thousands of gallons of blood. On processing days, the river became pink, lumpy vomit. For good measure, the cities of Akron and Cleveland infused it with their raw sewage, which turned it brown, and the Cuyahoga could now genuinely be called the city’s toilet. In the intervals, this victory stew cast an orange glow as pickling acid surged from the bowels of a steel mill. For a full century, the Cuyahoga simmered in its molten muddle. And in all of that time, it had forgotten how to freeze.
What they didn’t find was a single species of living fish. No fishing, no boating, and, especially, no swimming. In fact, they say that if you fell in the river, you were sent immediately to the hospital. It was only fitting, then, that Cleveland’s flower children were willing to inflict themselves with hefty taxes to further fund the river’s cleanup. Having long stripped the old life source of its vitality, it was time for Cleveland to rewrite its priorities and to intervene. And it worked, slowly. The establishment of regulations by the EPA and repeated attempts to meet water quality standards over the years began to break up the disease, so that less than four decades later, one Mr. Roberts could emerge from the river with his fly-fishing rod, six smallmouth bass, and the word “miracle” on his lips. The fish were coming back: the perch, the catfish, and the famed walleye. Left to the future remains only the steelhead trout.
Today, humans and animals can once again cohabitate in and along the now brothy river rather harmoniously, adapting to their newer, more innocuous circumstances. Upstream, the blue herons, beavers, and bald eagles nest along the river’s edge while cyclists spin along a parallel track. Downstream, clubs and restaurants now inhabit the old warehouses, as electric trams clip cleanly along the rim, expelling only suburban day-trippers. Jet-skiers thump across the waves from Lake Erie behind Cigarette boats to dock at restaurants and sip martinis under the sun. When night falls, globes from tiki bars swirl with the moon in the translucent water as rock stars croon in an open-air amphitheater.
As I meditate on the Cuyahoga now, I marvel at the heroic efforts of men like Frank Samsel, who spent as many as sixteen unrelenting hours each day coming and going under the bridges with boatfuls of debris. At one point, he came back with a tank from a 164,000-gallon gas spill. I am grateful. But when I look at old pictures like the one in Time, I don’t see a destructive fire. I don’t even see a toxic river. I see extravagance at its most sinister. I know now what I smelled on that Saturday afternoon in 1976 and it wasn’t all byproduct. It was the stink of an oily man’s wastrel breath.