This Day in History: Ewing Witnesses Aftermath of Cuyahoga River Catching Fire

Dateline: June 24, 1969, exactly 44 years ago:

I was working aboard the “S.S. Crispin Oglebay” as a “coal-passer” when it sailed up the Cuyahoga, one day after the fire. At about 10:00 p.m. on the night of the 23rd, we had sailed out the breakwater of Buffalo, New York’s harbor into a wall of violent storms churning up Lake Eire. We had to tie down everything: we even lashed the drunken dishwasher to his bunk. That night tornadoes tore up the north shore of Ohio, leaving much death and destruction in their wake.   I awoke to serve my 4-8 a.m. watch with the 3rd Engineer. By daylight I could see some sailboats floating upside down far offshore. Luckier boats had their masts snapped. What a mess greeted us when we sailed up the Cuyahoga. Floating debris clogged the river and the smell of burnt oil, chemicals, and charred debris hung heavy in the air. The Cuyahoga’s catching on fire finally awakened millions of sleeping Americans to the fact that their environment was in serious trouble. A movement was spawned and some historians argue that Nixon’s Clean Water Act of 1972 was a consequence of the fire on the Cuyahoga. I was there.

–Paul Ewing III


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