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April 22 is Earth Day. This annual event spotlights environmental protection. It started in 1970 in the United States and now takes place in over 190 countries. This year at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the public is invited to help restore natural habitat by planting native trees during a Day of Service. The park will also participate in EarthFest 2017, a regional environmental education event.
Earth Day started in response to major events that focused attention on pollution. One of those events, the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, occurred just a few miles downstream from Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Carl Stokes served as mayor of Cleveland during the fire and first Earth Day. This year, the region is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his election as the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city. With Earth Day just around the corner, it seems fitting to reflect on Stokes' legacy tied to these events.
The 1969 fire was not the first Cuyahoga River fire. There were at least 10 fires over the previous century. It was also not the biggest fire. It lasted for less than a half hour and resulted in $50,000 damage to two railroad trestles. Photographers did not have time to get to the fire; the often-seen photograph of the Cuyahoga River on fire dates to 1952.
The first newspaper coverage of the 1969 fire focused on the damage, not the pollution that caused the fire. The Cuyahoga River fire as a symbol of water pollution emerged over time. Stokes' response to the fire began the shift to this view.
The fire took place on Sunday, June 22. On Monday, Stokes led the local press on a pollution tour of the river. In addition to the fire location, they visited an industrial site and poor sewer infrastructure that contributed to the pollution.
A 2015 book by David Stradling and Richard Stradling, "Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland," reflects on Stokes' leadership that day. They write, "During the pollution tour, Stokes attempted to assign meaning to the fire. He argued that the city was not in a position to control the pollution within its borders Cleveland had no power over its suburbs And it had no control over state regulations and the pollution permit system." Stokes' words reflect his desire to have more influence on the water quality within his city.
On Tuesday, June 24, The Plain Dealer ran an editorial, "Cleveland: Where the River Burns." It focused on the city's reputation, not ecological values. The same day, major chemical spill on the Rhine River, heightened concerns. On Wednesday, the Cleveland Press tied the incidents together in an editorial about an unfolding environmental crisis. This narrative grew further after the fire appeared in Time magazine in August. This article used a photo of Stokes from the pollution tour.
Yet another 1969 water pollution incident, a major oil spill in California, is part of the story of the first Earth Day. U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin visited the site. On the flight home, he read about the anti-Vietnam-war teach-ins. This became the inspiration for Earth Day.
Gaylord established a national non-profit organization to lead Earth Day. However, much of the work was accomplished by thousands of organizations around the country.
Cleveland's event was dubbed the Crisis in the Environment Week.
Activities included a beach cleanup, tree planting, a speech by Ralph Nadar at Cleveland State, and a "March of Death" from Cleveland State to the river.
Even though a city employee helped lead the week, Stokes had reservations about it.
As mayor, he had been addressing water quality issues.
He ensured safe swimming in Lake Erie by creating chlorinated pools within the lake. However, he placed greater attention on issues of poverty, poor housing (including rats) and jobs.
These issues affect the quality of the urban environment, yet the emerging environmental movement did not embrace and fight for solutions for them.
He expressed his concerns at the kick-off press event for the Crisis in the Environment Week.
In a statement printed in the Plain Dealer on April 17, 1970, he said, "I am fearful that the priorities on air and water pollution may be at the expense of what the priorities of the country ought to be: proper housing, adequate food and clothing."
Stokes did not participate in the Crisis in the Environment Week. Yet, within the week, he went to Washington, D.C., to support federal pollution control legislation.
In 1972, the Clean Water Act became federal law. Stokes had left office by then, but his successors now had a tool he had desired to have greater leverage over the water quality of the Cuyahoga River.
More information about the celebration of Carl Stokes' legacy is available online at www.stokes50cle.com.
Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.