Burn On!

Water on fire. It’s elementally wrong, like earth made of air. So when an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River caught fire on June 22, 1969, 40 years ago this summer, the rest of America laughed instead of recoiled: What kind of city is so estranged from nature that its water burns? But fire and water are part of Cleveland: the steel mill’s flame, the inland sea we call a lake. Of course waves and flames came together in a town built on industry, sweaty work in furnaces and an oil baron’s headquarters on a watery highway. Today, we have done more than clean up the river. We’ve made our most embarrassing scandal a defiant part of our identity.

Let’s clear the air: Hack comedians, bad timing and a healthy dose of myth set our river fire loose on the nation. Forty years later, we’re taking it back. Read More >>

We asked 11 Clevelanders how they think the fire has changed the city's view of itself. Here are their tales of shame and perverse Cleveland pride. Read More >>


The river fire of 1969 is imprinted on our psyche like an orange-glowing chemical spill. So why bother suppressing our insecurities when you can tell the rest of the world to kiss your Burning River backside with Rollergirls panties? (If you’d prefer to celebrate our history in a more low-key way, we’ve got something for that, too.)

/ our take / Time filleted us with its 1969 article on the river fire. This clever retro tee reclaims the Cleveland jokes it spawned (just like we reclaimed the river) with a worried fish in the fiery river of 1969; a flame-topped fish in 1972 to commemorate Mayor Ralph Perk’s flammable hair; a three-eyed mutant fish for 1988; and a smiling fish representing the river’s many species today.

/ her take / “We’ve got to get past the embarrassment,” says Jane Goodman, communications director of Cuyahoga River Community Planning, which raises funds by selling the shirts. “Let them make jokes.”
/ price / $13.99-$29.99, cafepress.com/cuyahogashop

/ our take / Crooked River Coffee’s namesake blend has an oily brown complexion, like the famous flaming river. (“But it’s not burnt!” says owner Howard Sobel.) The dark roast offers full-bodied flavor with syrupy caramel notes. It’s even certified organic. The river? Let’s just say it’s cleaner these days.

/ his take / “The city itself has grown in sophistication and self-respect,” Sobel says. “The river is a metaphor for all that is great in the community.”

/ price /$11.50, shop.crookedrivercoffeeonline.com

/ our take /This little number with BRRG in Olde English lettering across the derriere is smokin’ hot. The roller derby league’s founders wanted to be as infamous as the river fire. Their logo, the Hazard, steals the symbol for hazardous waste.

/ her take /“We wanted a raw and gritty feel,” says Pretty Scarrie (aka Carrie Carpenter), assistant captain of the Hard Knockers, of the league’s name.


Our burning river is a surrealist’s puzzle — a violation of nature’s laws and an irresistible songwriters’ metaphor. Here are some lyrics that an oil slick and a spark have inspired.

“Burn On” | Randy Newman
Sail Away, 1972

Cleveland, city of light, city of magic / Cleveland, city of light, you’re calling me / Cleveland, even now I can remember / ‘Cause the Cuyahoga River / Goes smokin’ through my dreams

That slow, lazy orchestral score, those sing-song horns like mockery — no wonder we thought Newman was jeering at us. And no wonder the song was used in Major League’s opening montage.
/ the verdict / Should we really care what the Toy Story composer thinks?

“Cuyahoga” | R.E.M.
Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986

Up underneath the river bed, we burned the river down / This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang / Take a picture here, take a souvenir

Michael Stipe knew two things about the Cuyahoga: that it burned and that Native Americans named it. That’s all he needed to write this song about a dying river, long-vanished tribes and the rewriting of history. It’s a subtle protest (a call to “start a new country up”) and one of R.E.M.’s best. / the verdict / Poetry worthy of our river. We just wish they had known the U in “Cuyahoga” is silent.

“Cuyahoga” | Crookneck Chandler & the Tibbee Bottom Boys
Aw Yeah!, 2007

Cuyahoga, you’re looking alive now / Heading out to Lake Erie / You can hold your head high now

Sunny rock and bluegrass drive this reaction to Newman and Stipe’s pessimism. “People really like the fact that it’s open and honest about the past, but a very hopeful song,” says lead singer Hank Mallery./ the verdict /It’s the antidote to the burning-river blues.
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