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Issue Date: July 2009


Smoke Damage

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.
by Mark Winegardner

A photo of the November 1952 Cuyahoga River fire became legendary 17 years later when Time published it, misidentifying it as the infamous but smaller June 1969 fire.
If our river hadn’t burned, it might have been necessary to ignite it.

When I was writing my novel Crooked River Burning, I would have made the fire up if I’d had to. But I’m afraid I’m not talented enough to come up with anything half as potent. The Cuyahoga River fire and its unnatural, smoldering aftermath is the perfect metaphor for late 20th-century Cleveland.

It’s the 1969 fire I’m talking about. You may be surprised to learn that there were many others, dating back to at least 1868. One of the worst, in 1952, inflicted nothing so much as smoke damage upon Cleveland’s earnestly industrious postwar image.

Why should it have? Over a century, nearly all of America’s great industry-bearing rivers had at some point burst into flame. Until the ecology movement of the 1960s, no one particularly cared. Weird, sure. Tricky to put out, you betcha. Time to increase the percentage of water in the water, fellas! But bottom line, it was just the price of progress, the cost of doing business.

Then times changed. And so did Cleveland. The city Ebony once called “the best place in America for a Negro to live” became the site of the second major race riot of the 1960s. One of the richest men in town, Reuben Sturman, was a Fed-baiting pornographer. Ghoulardi left town, and so did scores of businesses and tens of thousands of people. By the time the Cuyahoga burned in 1969, we simply muttered what had become our dismal mantra: If a thing like this happens, it just figures it’d happen to Cleveland.

The Cuyahoga already worked as a symbol of our city. It puts the “cleave” — one of the bizarre words that is its own opposite — in Cleveland, both dividing it and joining it together. It is the hopelessly kinked line of demarcation between the East Side and the West Side, the line between America’s East and its Midwest. It was once the center of economic development here, the very reason the place was settled, an impetus to industry, back in the bygone decades when America made stuff.

That Cleveland should be known for that 1969 fire is ridiculously unfair — and yet, in spite of that unfairness and more so because of it, utterly apt: a big, flaming ball of Revelations-style apocalyptic urban mythology belching black smoke and enshrouding the city in inextinguishable, toxic zeitgeist and accursedly bad luck. Not to mention embarrassment — to which Clevelanders simultaneously took exception and stoically accepted as our grim fate.


Firefighters had extinguished the June 22, 1969, river fire by the time photographers arrived.
You may also be surprised to learn that the 1969 fire was not a big national news story. Not at first. Not until a month after the fire, and all because of another body of water — a tidal pool on Chappaquiddick Island into which Sen. Ted Kennedy drove a car. In the passenger seat was a young woman to whom the senator was not married. He swam away. She drowned. The Aug. 1, 1969, issue of Time with Kennedy on the cover, wearing a neck brace, was among the best-selling issues in the formerly Cleveland-based magazine’s history.

By chance, that same mega-selling issue contained the debut of a new section, Environment. It was teased on the inside cover with a letter from the publisher and a picture of the Cuyahoga with someone’s slime-covered hand in the foreground. Inside, the story praised Cleveland for allocating $100 million to clean up the river before it caught fire. It pointed out that the real culprits were polluting communities upstream. But it also included this quip: “ ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays.’ ”

The joke, you will note, is attributed to no one in particular. It’s cracked by us as a whole — and by Time, a Cleveland expat gone off to New York.

But the tipping point was still to come. A few weeks after that article, a guy named Jack Hanrahan took the Cleveland joke to an entirely new level. An Emmy-winning writer for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In — the hippest show on TV — Hanrahan wrote a bit in which the hosts gave Cleveland the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award because its river had burned. For the next few years, Cleveland was the constant butt of jokes, on Laugh-In, all over the dial and in every hack stand-up comic’s act — just as the number of stand-up comics was exploding.

Don’t blame showbiz for everything, though. It didn’t help matters when our mayor’s shellacked helmet of hair caught fire, too. Or when white flight blew our property values to bits and car bombs did the same to our mobsters. Not to mention all the other sad things that happened to Cleveland in the ’70s — things that, collectively, make us all feel that even this whole LeBron James story is somehow certain to have an excruciatingly unhappy ending.

And the punch line (which, if you have this city in your soul, you feel coming) is this: Jack Hanrahan was born, raised and died in Cleveland.

He started out as a cartoonist for The Cleveland Press and went on to write not just for Laugh-In but every genre of iconic ’70s TV: Get Smart; Marcus Welby, M.D.; The Waltons; The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour; CHiPS; Police Woman; on and on.

It was a wonderful life. Until it wasn’t. Drugs and drinking and maybe even karma took their toll. Thirty years after his heyday, almost 40 after his Emmy (and 20 or so since he pawned it), he was wandering the streets of Eureka, Calif., homeless, penniless, toothless and confused, yammering to the oblivious, the inconvenient and the unseen. He ended up on a Cleveland-bound bus with no money, no ID, nothing but the clothes on his back.

He came home.

We took him in. All was forgiven. A newspaper story about him brought in money, food and clothing. Old friends came forward to help. He spent the final months of his life in the relative comfort of a VA hospital, where, with new teeth, better meds and more frequent moments of clarity, he was something of a showman.

Lost in Eureka. Found in Cleveland. What a twisted, crooked fate.

He died last year. I don’t know what happened to his body. I don’t want to know. I don’t have the heart. Let’s do the man proud and print the legend: Jack Hanrahan’s cremated remains were scattered from a railroad bridge into the Cuyahoga River.

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