The Return of the Cuyahoga

The Return of the Cuyahoga premiered April 2008.

The Return of the Cuyahoga provides a fascinating look at the life, death and rebirth of one of America's most polluted rivers. The 100-mile long Cuyahoga River in Ohio is known to most Americans as "the river that burned," yet few are aware of its broad and historic impact on life in the United States.

River fireOne of many Cuyahoga River fires of the 20th Century, 1949 (Credit: Cleveland State University).
The Cuyahoga's improbable place in history began when explorers directed by President Washington declared it America's western boundary. By 1870, the Cuyahoga took its place on the economic frontier, where its waters gave life to such corporaations as Standard Oil, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Sherwin-Williams, Quaker Oats and Republic Steel. With these and other industries came fortunes and their byproducts, which were routinely deposited directly into the river.

During the twentieth century, river fires in industrial U.S. cities were so common that they barely rated mention in the news. Such was the case in June of 1969 when oil-soaked debris ignited a wooden railroad bridge over the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. Although the small fire was quickly put out, it ignited a flame that would burn in the nation's imagination.

By 1969, Americans were beginning to focus on threats to our natural resources, and Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes skillfully used the fire to press Congress for federal funds for a new sewage treatment facility. Stokes succeeded both in securing funding and raising awareness of the environmental challenges facing the country. The year following the fire, Earth Day was born, and within three years the federal government had established an Environmental Protection Agency and enacted a Clean Water Act. This brief period gave birth to an environmental movement that has continued to this day.

The Cuyahoga today The Cuyahoga River and Cleveland skyline today (Credit: Florentine Films/Hott Productions).
The return of the Cuyahoga, and of rivers across the United States, represents a tremendous success in individual effort, community resolve and national public policy. The final chapter of our relationship with our rivers has not been written, however. While the Clean Water Act led to reduced industrial pollution, it did not anticipate that contamination from urban run-off, suburban sprawl and agriculture would keep many U.S. waterways, like parts of the Cuyahoga, too polluted for swimming and fishing. Other challenges, such as dams and storm drains also test our ability to balance economic and environmental concerns.

Like many American rivers, the Cuyahoga serves a wide range of needs and purposes its communities must manage. The river is a channel for navigation and transportation, a site for recreation and entertainment, a source of water for people and agriculture and an important component of the ecosystem. Just as the Cuyahoga's fire illuminated the need for us to address the condition of our rivers, the actions Cuyahoga communities have taken to make their region more livable can light the way for all Americans. Ultimately, the story of the Cuyahoga is a story of the relationship between nature and humanity. This story is now being told through The Return of the Cuyahoga and through an associated Internet-based education program for schools.

  • See more images and clips from the film and learn about America's industrial growth and environmental movement at, the website of The Return of the Cuyahoga film and education project.

  • For teachers and students who want to further explore issues discussed in the film in their classroom, visit, a companion site to the program produced by WVIZ/PBS ideastream.

  • Visit to learn about the American Heritage Rivers initiative and fourteen nationally significant waterways, including the Cuyahoga.

Funded by:

Abington Foundation
Akron Community Foundation
The Cleveland Foundation
The Davey Foundation
The Gar Foundation
The George Gund Foundation
Peter B. Lewis
Mcdonald Hopkins
Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District
Ohio Humanities

Produced by:

America's River Communities
Floretine Films

© Copyright 2008 ideastream®. All Rights Reserved. Photos courtesy of Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc.


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