Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907. A marine biologist by trade, Carson is now most known for her powerful book on the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring, published in 1962. Silent Spring was not her first publication. Carson worked as a writer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in Washington, D.C. and had published three masterful books about ocean ecology in the 1940s and 1950s. What made Silent Spring different, however, was that it was a condemnation of humans’ treatment of the environment instead of a biological or ecological survey. Using powerful, persuasive language, Carson called for an end to pesticides like DDT and for people to stop destroying their environment. Silent Spring is often credited as a founding document for the modern environmental movement, and inspired people around the country to speak out against environmental disasters in their areas.
Bank of the Cuyahoga River, circa 1940s. (Image courtesy Ohio Memory).
One such disaster occurred right here in Ohio. In June 1969, pollutants in and on top of the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland caught fire, damaging industrial equipment and making headlines around the country. Although this fire is perhaps the most famous it wasn’t the first time the Cuyahoga caught fire. The river burned at least nine times from 1860 to 1969. The 1969 fire wasn’t even the largest of these fires; although there was damage. An earlier fire in 1952 caused $1.5 million in damaged and burned for much longer. In fact, the 1969 fire happened so fast that no one got a photo of the blaze, so when newspapers around the country ran stories about the fire they used photos from the 1952 fire instead!
Ore boat being pulled past industrial sites on the Cuyahoga River, circa 1940s. (Image courtesy Ohio Memory).
So why did the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire act as the catalyst for Cleveland residents to clean up their waterway and capture the American public’s imagination? The main reason was a growing concern for the environment brought on by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and other environmental texts of the time. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Americans viewed large industrial complexes, like those along the Cuyahoga, as a sign of progress. They were willing to sacrifice things like trees and clean water if it meant being part of a modern industrial society. By the 1960s, it was apparent just how steep the costs of this environmental destruction were, and books like Silent Spring made informed, passionate cases for protecting our environment.