Sparking change

When the Cuyahoga River burned in 1969, it didn’t have to be the last time. So why was it?

Mayor Carl Stokes, Betty Klaric, and Judge George J. McMonagle were part of the Cleveland story before the Cuyahoga River burned in 1969. They ushered in a new era of clean water in 1972.

The Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 wasn’t the first. The crooked river burned at least 13 times in its history, and river fires were so common across an industrializing country into the 1950s that the 1969 blaze didn’t even make the front page of the Cleveland news.

So why was Cleveland’s river fire the last straw? But to understand its significance and the environmental advancements made possible in the decades since, we can look at the people, programs, and progress that truly sparked a change that ignited the movement.

Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes near the site of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire.

In 1969, Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, the first Black mayor of a major city when elected in 1967, was a long-time advocate for environmental responsibility. He criticized the Federal government for not taking appropriate regulatory action and vowed to fight for a cleaner river for the residents of Cleveland.

“That was the greatness of Carl Stokes,” former Cleveland Utilities Director Ben Stefanski II recalled in 2010. “He could see the issue and understand how it affected people, and then use that issue in a positive way to make change.”

This combination of awareness and advocacy would be considered an early example of environmental justice. He believed that his city’s water pollution woes required attention and action at the suburban, state, and federal levels, as well: “The river flowed through too many places before reaching Cleveland that were outside his control.”

The story itself was compelling, but so was who covered it. Betty Klaric, one of the first journalists to be named a full-time environmental reporter for a major daily newspaper in the mid-1960s, was the Cleveland Press reporter who followed Stokes on a Cuyahoga River pollution tour. Her coverage received national attention that led to coverage in TIME magazine in 1969.

Betty Klaric holding water sample from Cuyahoga River. Date unknown. Photo courtesy Betty Klaric Collection.

“While we didn’t pay much attention to that [particular fire], because it wasn’t that unusual,” Klaric recalled in 2007, “the national media began to pay attention. Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River became the symbol nationally of what was wrong with the environment.”

The year 1970 was punctuated with federal attention as Stokes testified before the US Senate on behalf of the US Conference of Mayors, calling for significant federal funding for clean water. Congressman Louis Stokes, the mayor’s brother, testified in the US House that same year, securing money for Cuyahoga River clean up.

Things were changing. Soon after, the Environmental Protection Agency and what would eventually become the Clean Water Act emerged from the smoke and affect the course of environmental history.

The creation of the Sewer District in 1972 obviously was not the first time the region had wastewater treatment or industrial oversight. The City of Cleveland owned and operated three treatment plants since the early 1920s, and over the years saw the system struggle under the stress of suburban expansion. A dispute over the cost for improvements and the responsibility of city versus suburban customers led to a Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court lawsuit that introduced our history to the name Judge George J. McMonagle.

“McMonagle got hold of [the case] and really pushed it along,” said former Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District Erwin Odeal.

Judge George J. McMonagle, center, created the Cleveland Regional Sewer District by Cuyahoga County Court Order in 1972.

The judge was considered a visionary, recognizing that a regional district, referring to Chapter 6119 of the Ohio Revised Code, would be most effective addressing both issues of shared cost and responsibility for wastewater services in Northeast Ohio. And on June 15, 1972, the Cleveland Regional Sewer District was formed.

In this same year, the US law known as the Clean Water Act established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States, and gave EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry.

The Cuyahoga’s story has as many meanders as the river itself. But the people and passions leading up to 1972 enabled her to have a sustainable future.

The next 5o years would see enhancements, expansion, collaboration, and innovation that would improve the lives of a million Northeast Ohioans for generations to come. We’re proud to keep those stories, and our crooked river, flowing today.

Learn more about our #50YearStory. Last edited February 22, 2024.

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Clean water at 50.

Our 50th anniversary year of 2022 isn’t just marking time. It’s a milestone of impact, progress, and opportunity. Read more.

Related resources

Carl B. Stokes and the 1969 River Fire

The National Parks Service and Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s article on Mayor Stokes provide additional quotes and context about the events surrounding the fire and years that followed. Read more.



Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District

Official Medium channel of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in Cleveland, OH