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50 years ago today, the Rouge River caught on fire

Credit Cleveland State University
The Cuyahoga River on fire in 1952, one of several times the river caught fire.

A half-century ago, within the span of two years, three of America’s rivers caught fire. One of them was in Michigan. Those fires ignited the environmental movement. 

On this date, October 9th, 50 years ago, the Rouge River caught fire. 

You might be thinking, “How does a river catch on fire?”

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, waste oil and all kinds of other contaminants produced by industry were simply dumped into nearby rivers and it was carried off. By the 1940s, Detroit industries were dumping close to six million gallons of waste oil a year into the Detroit and Rouge rivers.

There were no environmental protections. Besides killing most of the wildlife, it also soaked into scrap wood that was also dumped into the river. All you needed was a spark.

The second thing you might be thinking is, “I thought the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland caught fire?” It did. And that’s the one most people know about. 

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
John Hartig is the author of "Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Industrial Rivers that Caught Fire. Those rivers are the Cuyahoga, Buffalo, Chicago, and the Rouge.

John Hartig wrote the book Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire.

“Time Magazine had this section of the magazine devoted — first one ever — to [the] environment. And that was the lead story. The burning of the Cuyahoga River, the pollution of Lake Erie. The Cuyahoga, it became the poster child of the environmental movement,” Hartig said while sitting next to the Rouge River.

The Cuyahoga had caught fire several times before. But this time, the news media made it widely known. Shortly after that Time magazine issue came out, the Rouge River caught on fire.

Credit Courtesy River Rouge Herald and John Hartig.
The John Kendall fighting the 1969 fire on the Rouge River.

“A worker dropped an acetylene torch and it caught the river on fire. And it took ten pieces of fire department equipment and the John Kendall, (a Detroit Fire Department boat) not to put the fire out -you don't put a fire out with oil burning down a river - but to contain it and let it burn itself out,” Hartig explained.

People were outraged. The government responded. The next year the federal government approved the National Environmental Policy Act, the beginning of pollution regulation and a model worldwide.

After members of the Friends of the Rouge took me on a kayak tour of the lower Rouge River, Sally Patrella talked about the river’s future. She coordinates volunteers for the Friends of the Rouge.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Sally Petrell with the Friends of the Rouge.

SP: “It has so much potential to be a beautiful recreational asset.”

LG: “In the midst of all the industry?”

SP:  “It's fascinating. I mean you tell me that you weren't fascinated as you went by all of that.”

LG:  “It was very interesting and incongruent most of the time.”

SP: “Yeah yeah yeah. You see the wildlife out there and then you see the DTE plant, you see the Ford Rouge plant, but the river flows right through it and things still survive in it.”

The river definitely is much cleaner than it was 50 years ago. However, there still are some problems. 

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Marie McCormick, Executive Director of Friends of the Rouge.

“You still have oily discharges," says Marie McCormick, Executive Director of the Friends of the Rouge. "You still have water temperature pollution. You still have a lot of impact from the industry but again at the end of the day you wonder where is it going to be where is it going to live and it just happens to live here along the banks the Rouge River."

In other words, the industrial plants are not going away.

The Friends of the Rouge has improved a lot of areas along the river and has plans for a lot more green spaces so people can enjoy it more. But everyone knows there’s work to do.

John Hartig notes there are a lot of people in a lot of groups at work.

“So we have a long ways to go but the future is very promising because we have some amazing non-governmental organizations that are doing continuous and vigorous oversight on behalf of all of us and are being the watchdogs and pushing everyone to do the right thing,” said Hartig.

And they hope everyone is reminded that cleaning up the rivers of the Great Lakes is unfinished work.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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