Canoeing the Cuyahoga: An Outsider Travels the Cuyahoga in Search of the Rust Belt

Excerpted with permission from "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland" by Edward McClelland. Published by Bloomsbury. Copyright 2013

Most Clevelanders believe the word "Cuyahoga" means "crooked river" in the Mohawk language. Philologically, this is incorrect. To the Mohawks, "Cuyahoga" means "big river," the same title their Huron rivals gave to the Mississippi. (The Mohawks, whose idea of family entertainment was skinning prisoners alive, were neither the poets nor the cartographers the Clevelanders who replaced and romanticized them like to imagine.) Hydrologically, though, crooked river is a quite accurate description of the Cuyahoga, so it's a sobriquet that Clevelanders have attached a beer (Crooked River Ale), a novel (Crooked River Burning) and the Crooked River Skate Park. The Cuyahoga begins its journey north of its own mouth. After tracing a wet, 100-mile-long V across the Western Reserve, it arrives in Cleveland crumpled into kinks and loops, as though a river with a much truer sense of direction had crashed headlong into Lake Erie. In its dilatory lower reaches, the river scribbles a cursive course through the flats of Cleveland, taking a week to flow through its last five miles.

The Cuyahoga is one of the least ambitious bodies of water ever to find its way into a Great Lake, but it was in the right place at the right time to become one of the most influential rivers in American history.

To mid-century Clevelanders, the Cuyahoga was not a river. It was not even a body of water. It was, a staff writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote "a liquid Mesabi range," shaped like a lower intestine and performing the same function for Republic and Jones and Laughlin, the two largest steel mills on its banks. Discharge pipes, as misshapen as gargoyle mouths, vomited sulfuric acid into the water. Iron scale and fleece dust tinted the surface a liverish hue that locals described as "terra cotta," or "a maroonish blush." Downstream of the Sherwin-Williams plant, the color depended on which batch of paint had gone bad the night before.

The Cuyahoga was not just a sewer. It was a dump, too. Broken pallets and living room chairs were abandoned under bridges. Industrial spools lifted their hips above the surface. The mills cooled themselves with river water then returned it, steaming, so the Cuyahoga never froze. A city councilman dipped a white sheet into the water and lifted out a rag stained with oil.

If the river looked bad, it smelled even worse.

"It would have had a very distinctive odor," said Wayne Bratton, who captained freighters that tied up in the Cuyahoga. "Back then, it wouldn't have been unusual to have 10 to 20 ships in the river. The river bubbled like a cauldron. The river was black, high in petroleum content. Recreational boats did not come in the river, no less canoes. You wouldn't have been able to stand the smell. They used to say if you fell in the river, don't spit it out, because you'll be polluting."

The Cuyahoga first caught fire in 1936. As a welder removed bolts from a freighter's stern, sparks dribbled from his blowtorch, igniting the petroleum cocktail below. The welder tumbled through the smoke, burning his hand and face before crewmen fished him out of the flaming water. The fire fed on the oily wooden piers of an Erie Railroad jackknife bridge, but was extinguished by the fire department before it could reach 80,000 barrels of gasoline stored in riverside tanks. Those stray sparks taught Cleveland a lesson about the Cuyahoga: it needed a fire boat for the next time the river went up in flames.

The next big fire, in 1952, destroyed three tugs and most of a boat-repair yard—a million dollars in damage. Downtown Cleveland looked like Pearl Harbor. An orange tideline of flame spread across the river as the fire expanded, heaping black smoke into the sky. Still without a boat, 22 fire companies sprayed water from bridges, beating back the inferno before it could blow up the Standard Oil Co.'s ship fuel tanks. Mayor Thomas A. Burke promised that his administration would clean up the Cuyahoga.

"In the past we have not had the cooperation of industries," Burke said. "Well, we're going to get it in the future."

They didn't. In 1968, Bratton and his maritime industry colleagues were so disgusted by the persistent filth they formed the Oil Study Group, to clean it up themselves. A little vessel known as Putzfrau—German for "cleaning woman"—trolled the river, equipped with a two-ton crane and a vacuum tank that allowed it to scoop up 100 yards of debris and suck up 20,000 gallons of oil in a single day. The Study Group experimented with chemicals and absorbent pads to clean up the goop.

A year into the Oil Study Group's existence, the Cuyahoga called attention to itself in a way a gang of conservationists never could have. On June 22, 1969, it caught fire again. A hot rain of sparks fell from a rail car carrying molten steel across a Norfolk & Western bridge, igniting an oil slick. Floating downriver, the burning slick scorched the bridge's pillars and warped its rails. With damage estimated at fifty grand, the fire was no big deal in Cleveland, certainly not as big as the holocaust of '52. And this time, the fire department had a boat to put it out. The Cleveland Press ran a photo of the crooked bridge on Page 1, with a five-sentence caption. But this so-what-the-river-burned-again fire ignited the American environmental movement and burned a scar onto Cleveland's self-image which has yet to heal.

In response to the anti-pollution movement begun by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Time magazine had just initiated an "Environment" column. The August 1 column, "America's Sewage System and the Price of Optimism," recounted the fire and described Cleveland's "archaic" sewer system: "Every day for the past month, 25 million gallons of raw sewage have cascaded from a ruptured pipe, spilling a gray-green torrent into the Cuyahoga and thence into Lake Erie."

Clevelanders consider that 1969 column—not the fire itself—the beginning of a decade-long curse on their city. The first stroke of bad luck: the cover of that issue was a photo of Senator Edward Kennedy leaving the funeral of Mary Jo Kopechene, the woman he'd driven off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island. Had it not been for Chappaquiddick, Clevelanders insist, no one would have read that week's Time, thus sparing Cleveland 40 years of burning river jokes.

The Chappaquiddick excuse, by the way, is nonsense. The issue wasn't one of Time's best sellers. The unlucky coincidence? The fire occurred as Time was responding to its readers' growing ecological consciousness. Cleveland should feel fortunate the column didn't debut the week before, when the moon landing was on the cover. The Cuyahoga, that timely river, burst into flames at just the right moment to become a symbol of the environmental movement. Water turning to fire was the most era's most dramatic, otherworldly pollution disaster. Over the next few years, the Cuyahoga inspired Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Water Act of 1972, which contributed half the funds to detoxify the river.

In the spring of 1971, the second year after the inferno, a reporter and photographer from the Cleveland Press canoed the entire Cuyahoga River. It wasn't any cleaner.

"People will dump anything at all into a stream," wrote John Randt. "Among other things that could be identified, we saw bedsteads, white enameled stoves, ice boxes and other appliances.

"We saw paint cans, coffee cans, and all kinds of plastic containers, detergent boxes, and rubber balls. We saw broken wooden boxes, and in one place we saw a discarded old yellow school bus.

"There was still an occasional faint odor of Akron sewage and every rapids foamed up into detergent suds."

Forty years later, I took the same trip—or at least the last leg of it. My guide was a young schoolteacher named Mark Pecot, who runs a kayak adventure service named 41 North, after Cleveland's latitude. We put our boats into the river behind a supper club in the suburb of Valley View, 14 miles south of Lake Erie as the carp crookedly swims.

That far upstream, the Cuyahoga is a rural waterway. Alone on the river, Mark and I paddled between palisades of forest. Herons skimmed the surface on dragonfly wings. We passed a group of fishermen, standing on the soft bank, keeping one eye on their spidery line and the other on a case of Keystone Ice. Every mile or two, a raised highway transected the river at such an altitude that the cars overhead belonged more to the sky than to our aquatic world. Because the Cuyahoga is so naturally shallow, the bends were clogged with cattails, branches and tree trunks, lodged against sandbars whose pebbly humps formed mid-channel islands. The current eddied around these arboreal sheddings. This was only my second time in a kayak, so I struggled to keep my prow pointed forward in the turgid water.

"Don't fight the current!" Mark shouted as my kayak spun on the water. "Take long, wide strokes to get yourself turned in the right direction!"

Finally, I drove my kayak right into the bank. As Mark tried to free me, I felt water leaking into the cockpit, and then I suddenly tipped over—from upright to sideways, from dry to wet. I lugged the boat to a sandbar and climbed back in. Once, that might have been a medical emergency—"If I fell in that river, I'd go to a doctor," a young man from Akron told the Press in 1971—but now I just had to paddle to the lake in wet jeans.

Six miles from its mouth the Cuyahoga becomes an industrial river. We heard the change before we saw it—a grinding that insinuated itself into our ears, and then seemed to be coming from every direction, like an ultra-low frequency siren. Turning a bend, we saw its source—the ArcelorMittal steel mill. (ArcelorMittal bought the old LTV Cleveland Works in 2005.) To our right, an iron mandible slid along an overhead track, dipped its jaws into a mound of taconite, and carried a mouthful back to the foundry. Now we were paddling beneath railroad bridges as dark as creosote. When Mark spotted a bridge with charred timbers, he floated to a stop and pulled his point-and-shoot camera from a waterproof bag.

"This is it," he said. "This is the bridge where the fire started."

Mark snapped photos and talked about this unremarkable bridge's remarkable afternoon. We were floating at Water Zero of the modern environmental movement. To test the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act, I dipped a finger into the river and stuck it in my mouth. It tasted like well water, clean and mineraly.

"It was one of those things that caught the nation's attention," Mark said. "Rachel Carson's book came out. That's why it became a big deal. And it's a good thing that it did. The industries that remain, their practices have changed. For a hundred-plus years, the river was a dumping ground. There's this question of balance. People need to work. You get kind of poignant thinking about Cleveland's place in history. It was the sixth largest city. It was the playground of the country. That wealth came from the steel that built so many other cities, but it was at the environmental cost of polluting the river. Cleveland was kind of used and cast aside."

It wasn't just the scenery that had changed here on the Lowest Cuyahoga. The river had changed, too. Dredged to a depth of 23 feet, margined by concrete walls, it was as smooth as an Olympic pool. I was no longer surprised that this river had once been so inorganic that not even flatworms could survive. Now, I was impressed that it was the only living thing in downtown Cleveland.

Mark's marine radio alerted him to a freighter. We ducked behind a right angle in the riverbank and watched the 700-foot-long Dorothy Ann fill the channel, fill the sky. Our kayaks bobbed on her echoing wake of wavelets.

"We've been approached about doing a kayak launch, but we've been nervous about novice kayakers dealing with freighters," Mark said.

From then on, we paddled into downtown Cleveland, as though the Cuyahoga were just a street that happened to be colored blue on the map. Our first landmark was the baseball stadium, then the basketball arena, then the Terminal Tower. An old railroad bridge, crosshatched with girders filling panels of sky in a one-sided game of tic-tac-toe. An automobile bridge whose railing resembled the classic façade at Yankee Stadium. A lift bridge, cocked toward the sky like a World War I German howitzer. Greenery clumped on the banks, thick as kudzu. Nonsensical graffiti—HoBPJ, OMAR—in lavenders, reds and aquas. Grain elevators patched with decals, in drywall patterns.

We passed the Holiday, Wayne Bratton's pleasure cruise boat. I called his name and a bald head appeared on deck.

"You're the guy I want to talk to about the river!" I shouted.

"Well, when are we going to do it?" he asked.

"As soon as I finish this kayak trip."

"You've got about two-and-a-half miles to go."

Finally, there was nothing ahead of us but open water and open sky. This was the mouth of the Cuyahoga. Past dunes of gypsum on the right, and an Art Deco Coast Guard station on the left, we paddled into the choppy lake, turned left, and beached the boats.

I rushed back to the house where I was staying to change out of my wet jeans, then raced back to the riverfront, where I found Wayne Bratton. He was ordering around a two-person crew painting the Holiday with the same crusty authority that had once commanded an ore freighter.

"Be careful you don't step where they're painting," he roared at me, at the volume of a man who is both used to command and who, at 75, is trying to make himself audible above his own hearing loss. He sat down on a padded bench in his galley and explained why I'd been able to kayak a river that was once too rancid even to walk alongside.

Soon after the fire, the state of Ohio closed a silt distributor and a metal plater who'd been dumping into the river by using a nuisance statute written to shut down whorehouses. Sherwin-Williams was slapped with a $1.5 million lawsuit, to stop it from treating the Cuyahoga as a liquid palette. Republic Steel spent $38 million on a cooling tower and a settling tank that prevented the discharge of scalding water and heavy metals. That summer of the fire, a sewer main broke, spewing 25 million gallons of shit every day for months. Cleveland spent billions of dollars on a network of tunnels to hold rainfall that would otherwise have washed through the treatment plants and force them to release raw sewage. After the fire, Mayor Carl Stokes declared the dirty river as much a threat to his constituents as nuclear war.

"We have the kind of air and water pollution problems in these cities that are every bit as dangerous to the health and safety of our citizens as any ICBM so dramatically poised 5,000 miles from our country," said Stokes, who lobbied for federal cleanup money and stronger environmental laws.

Some of those laws were more effective than intended, shutting down factories they'd only meant to regulate. Unable to meet the EPA's air quality standards, U.S. Steel shipped its mill to China, where polluters can write their names on the sky. Fewer factories on the river meant fewer ships, and fewer ships meant fewer oil terminals: Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Sun and Gulf all shut down after the steel crisis of the 1980s. The Cuyahoga's revival was tied to Cleveland's economic decline. And of course, with half its peak population, Cleveland is dumping half as much sewage and garbage. Within six years of the fire, the Putzfrau's clean-up mission ended, astonishing its captain.

"The way the river looked in the beginning, I was sure that I would retire and there'd still be plenty of work to do," he told the makers of the documentary Return of the Cuyahoga.

Since the Cuyahoga is a federal navigable waterway, open for ships, Mark Pecot's "question of balance" had not quite tipped in favor of recreation; but a rowing club has established itself on the Flats, a sign that the Lowest Cuyahoga can function as both a shipping channel and a lifestyle amenity. Water is the one advantage every Rust Belt city has over its suburbs and the Sun Belt.

Bratton had seen the Cuyahoga's potential back in 1982, when he bought the Holiday and chartered scenic tours of America's unsightliest body of water. Environmental groups traveled to Cleveland from all over the world to see the river that burned. On Saturday nights, Bratton piloted spa cruises.

"I never thought in my life that we'd have these people," Bratton said, lifting his eyes to look at the glittering water. "People swim in the river. Are they goofy? Yeah. They're not well. But they're swimming in the river."

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