Mayor Carl Stokes stood on a railroad trestle burned by the Cuyahoga River fire
and promised action. “There may be some wry humor in the phrase ‘the river is a
fire hazard,’ ” said Stokes, “but it’s a terrible reflection on the city.”
On Sunday, June 22, 1969, an oil slick on the Cuyahoga ignited. It caused $50,000
in damage to two wooden trestles before firefighters extinguished it. Stokes, visiting
the riverbank the next day, vowed to sue the state and any companies that might
have dumped waste into the waterway. Back then, a Cleveland fireboat patrolled the
Cuyahoga daily to break up floating patches of industrial oil.
Betty Klaric, standing next to Stokes, wrote the next day’s Cleveland Press story.
One of the nation’s first full-time environmental reporters, she’d worked the beat
for five years. “Like many a private citizen the mayor wondered out loud how pollution
like that could be tolerated,” Klaric wrote. “Unlike private citizens he said he
could and would do something about it.” In spring 1970, Stokes testified before
Congress about the river fire and the need for the Clean Water Act, which became
law in 1972.