The Most Disgusting, Perfect Description of the Cuyahoga River


Journalist Edward McClelland, author of Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland, will speak tonight at the Happy Dog as part of the Write to Assemble series in conjunction with Ohio City Writers.

McClelland's book is fantastic, chronicling the auto industry's rise and fall and the familiar wastelands of rust belt America. Among other things, he's got one of the most vivid descriptions of the pre-1969 Cuyahoga you'll ever see:

To midcentury Clevelanders, the Cuyahoga was not a river. It was not even a body of water. It was, as 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 for 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 marroonish blush." Upstream of the Sherwin-Williams plant, the color depended on which batch of paint had gone bad the night before. Every day, factories polluted the river with 550,000 gallons of wastewater. The pickling acids, discharged by the steel mills, contained ferrous sulfate, which absorbed so much oxygen that the shoals were open graveyards of fish, bleached of color, gasping to death. Dark oil slicks floated on the water, like whorls of black ink. The calcium sulfate excrescence from Harshaw Chemical topped the river with a cream of white soda. Slaughterhouses pumped blood, animal organs, and offal into the river.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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