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Cuyahoga River

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A winding river separating the east and west sides of Cleveland, Ohio. The word "Cuyahoga" is a native American term for "crooked river". The many swamps and thickets along both sides of the river were a stumbling block for early settlers making their way west from Connecticut with oxen drawn wagons. Adding to their woes was the threat of malaria.

The industrial complex has been in place for so long in the valley that it is difficult to imagine it in a more pristine state. Was it heavily wooded, or open grasslands? We know parts were marshy, but that was probably just the areas closest to the river or parts with poor drainage.

How deep was the river in the early 1800's? Because of the deep dredging of the river to allow large ships to enter the various ports, it's possible the water level was much different before these major alterations. In fact, it was written in the 1902 book, "Reminiscences" by O.J. Hodge, that there were originally three outlets to Lake Erie and that in dry seasons it was possible to cross the river on foot. So perhaps the pioneers might not have had as much difficulty crossing as it would seem. at least in some areas close to Lake Erie. Where the river passed under the Harvard-Denison Bridge, the depth was a mere 2.2 feet.[1]

About 1831, a whiskey distillery was built on what is now aptly called "Whiskey Island".

An 1896 book, Centennial history of Cleveland, bemoans the fact that the "blue, crystal waters" were a thing of the past. Pollution had apparently already taken it's toll. It's hard to see the Cuyahoga ever having blue clear water because of the mud riverbase.


Flora and Fauna

Prior to the industrialization of the Cuyahoga Valley, the area abounded with otter, muskrats, turkeys, raccoons, wolves, elk, panthers, and bears. Many areas along the river were nothing more than swamps filled with bullrushes and mosquitos.

Fishing, prior to the industrialization of the valley, provided an interesting assortment of choices. Bass, catfish, bullhead, shad, redhorse mullet (A bottom-feeder, feeding on mussels, snails, crustaceans and immature aquatic insects), and sturgeon were found in great numbers.

In 1836, a traveler named Oren Wiley described Ohio City as being situated on an high, dry, barren plain covered in white oak shrubs. What hemlocks there were, were found near swamps and ponds.


Can a river really catch fire? The Cuyahoga River is a good example of the answer being in the affirmative. Many industries along the river freely spewed chemicals and oil into the river unhampered by laws to prevent them from doing so. Add to this pollution the debris that would often collect in the many turns and bends of the Cuyahoga or under railroad bridges, and you have the recipe for big fires to break out on the river. Fires broke out in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, 1952, and 1969.

1912 -- Five deaths
March 1936 -- Burns for five days.
A major fire broke out on the river when a spark from a blowtorch ignited oil and debris. Damages of $20,000 to a railroad bridge.
June 2, 1949 --
March 14, 1951 --
Nov 3, 1952 -- Burns for three days.
An intense fire, probably the worst of all on the Cuyahoga, breaks out near Jefferson Street and West 3rd Street. Damages reached $1.5 million. A picture of this fire was mistakenly used in news reports of the next big fire in 1969.
June 22, 1969 -- Burns for 30 minutes.
Another fire, this one defining Cleveland in an unfavorable way for many years. Oil and debris ignited under a railroad trestle but was extinguished in about 30 minutes. Due to the national news coverage of this event, the environmental impact pollution has on our rivers became a major issue and led to a drive to clean up all rivers.


There is speculation that during a flood in the Cuyahoga Valley, a boat capsized killing all 36 aboard. The victims were said to all be buried in a single grave at the Brainard / Broadview Cemetery in Brooklyn, Ohio (next to 2044 Broadview Ave.) If there was ever a grave marker, it is long since disappeared and the names of the victims are unknown. Here are some of the more likely floods that might have been responsible for these deaths.

June 23, 1882 - Not exactly a flood in the usual sense of the word, but rather the results of a devastating "tidal wave" that reached 12-15' in height that occurred at about 6:30 a.m. Tidal waves of this nature are called a "seiche" and are caused by atmospheric conditions. Source: All about Cleveland : a city cyclopedia, the Cleveland cicerone. Cleveland, Ohio: Whitworth Bros. Co., 1908, 225 pgs (see page 43)

"...June 23, 1882: Mystery Wave Sweeps Cleveland
Large waves arriving from a calm Lake Erie have hit the North Coast at least twice, in 1882 and 1942. Seven people were drowned in the 1942 wave, reported to be up to 15 feet high from Bay Village to Geneva. The 1882 wave was more than 8 feet high. It came ashore at 6:20 A.M. “carrying before it everything movable and some things supposed immovable.” Huge logs were carried hundreds of feet inland, fires were extinguished at the Lake Erie rolling mill, barges tossed onto dry ground, and the mooring lines snapped on ships. Distant thunder was heard offshore ten minutes before the wave hit and a heavy cloud was observed over the lake. The lake was calm and the approaching wave swept along silently until it reached shallow water, where it made a loud “swishing noise and broke on the shore with a great roar.” No strong wind was reported that morning from shore. There was no report of a large wave elsewhere on Lake Erie and no reports of an earthquake. It seems likely that violent thunderstorm winds several miles offshore from Cleveland created a large wave that moved toward the shore. A similar explanation may apply to the 1942 North Coast wave, as lightning was observed offshore. "

--Cleveland Plain Dealer

Early February 1883 - A great flood caused by a steady rain that melted the ice and snow. The flooding extended about three miles in distance from the mouth of the Cuyahoga. Scranton Road was covered by about 3 to 4 feet of water. When the flood waters reached leaking oil at the Standard Oil Works, it carried the oil downstream right into the flames of a boiler room of the Great Western Works. The resulting floating fire and explosions created quite a destructive spectacle. This incident predates the more modern and infamous "Burning River" event that made Cleveland a laughing stock. Source: "The World's" history of Cleveland : commemorating the city's centennial anniversary. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland World, 1896, 445 pgs.

"A great flood in the Cuyahoga Valley, accompanied by fire, was also among the events of importance in 1883. Heavy rains in early February had swollen the river to many times its usual size, and a rise of ten feet in near twice that many hours caught many unawares, and almost at one sweep lumber, to the value of three hundred thousand dollars, was swept out into the lake. Damage was done all over the Flats, bridges carried away, railroad embankments washed out, vessels wrecked, and, finally, damage by fire. A tank of five thousand barrels of oil blew up in the Great Western Oil Works, and the burning oil spread over the rushing waters. Next below were the paraffine woks of Meriam & Morgan, which were set on fire by the burning oil; and the destruction of the immense works of the Standard Oil Company seemed imminent. Some of the outworks were burned, and only a culvert that had become gorged with lumber saved the many acres of stills and buildings from entire destruction. It was a scene that will never be forgotten, by the thousands who gazed upon it—the valley under water and the whole expanse lighted up by the burning of acres of oil spread out upon the waters. The loss, from flood and fire, reached nearly three quarters of a million dollars."
Source: A History of the City of Cleveland, by James Harrison Kennedy, 1896

Spring of 1893

"On April 1, 1893, he was appointed by the government as keeper or captain of the Cleveland life-saving station, vice Capt. C.C. Goodwin, deceased. During the flood which occurred in the Cuyahoga River in the spring of 1893, while the lifeboat crew were going to a rescue, the boat capsized and four of the surfmen were drowned. Captain Distel on this occasion came nearly losing his life, and was in the icy waters two hours almost unconscious before he was rescued. After a long and serious illness which resulted from the above exposure and other permanent injuries received in the life-saving service, in the line of duty, he found that his health had been so impaired that it became necessary the following spring for him to resign his position as keeper of the station. "
Source: History of the Great Lakes, Vol. 2 by J.B. Mansfield; Captains, Shipping, Lighthouse Keepers and Marine Biographies http://www.linkstothepast.com/marine/captainsD.html

September 1895

"A tidal wave visited the harbor Thursday morning. The water suddenly began to fall and before the movement stopped it had gone down 30 inches, leaving some of the skiffs and sail boats in the inner harbor high and dry. Luckily no large vessel was at that time moving in or out of the river. In twenty minutes the water came back in one big wave, which spent itself on the breakwater and the beach. A peculiar black cloud hung over the lake to the northeast at the time."
Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, NY. Sep 21, 1895

February 15, 1908

Thanks to heavy rain and the melting of snow dropped by a blizzard the previous day, the lowlands around the Cuyahoga flooded to a depth of several feet.

March 1913 - A severe flood swept through the valley as heavy rains caused the river to rise quickly.

Both of the companies shown at the right were about 500 feet from the Cuyahoga along Belt Line Road off of Jennings Avenue near Denison Avenue. J.L. & H. Stadler Rendering and Fertilizer Co. and the Kroehle Tanning Company were clearly inundated by the rising water.

Also affected, though not shown, was the Cuyahoga Soap Company which was owned by August W. Stadler.


It goes without saying that with so many industries lining both side of the river, pollution was a major concern. The waste that these businesses dumped into the river sometimes even affected the odor and taste of the drinking water in the city. Refineries, tanneries, and others put a toxic mix in the waters that eventually killed off all the fish.

Harshaw Chemical put things into the water that were especially odoriforous and gave you a stinging sensation in your nose. On the dropoff from their plant to the water level, the ground was colored from yellow to orange. Whatever chemicals they allowed to enter the river, also accumulated on a small "island" where the river was especially shallow.

External Links

About Cuyahoga Soap

Kroehle and Sons Tannery
Kroehle and Sons Tannery

J.L. & H. Stadler Fertilizer Co.

J.L. & H. Stadler Fertilizer Co.


  1. Charles C. Davis and Harland B. Roney, Department of Biology, Western Reserve University, Jan 1953 pg. 25, A Preliminary Study of Industrial Polution in the Cleveland Harbor Area
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