Sparks spewed from the wheels of the train as it crossed the river bridge at Industrial Flats. Vibrations clickety-clacked their way down the steel trestle and into the water. At the surface however, there was no disturbance. Not a ripple.
No birds were to be seen floating on or flying above the water either. No fish broke the surface with their bubbles, for there were none. There were no bugs or plants to feed upon. There weren’t even any slugs or worms inching their way through the slime on the banks. It was lifeless. Anaerobic. The scant riparian vegetation that survived along the shore was poisonous.
The water hugging the base of the bridge supports was a thick goo, mostly black in color, but with sporadic patches of brown and orange and yellow. Oil and sewage and acids. The noon sun brought about a rainbow effect across most of it.
The top six inches of it were the consistency of pudding.
Suspended in the stagnant multi-colored morass was a plethora of flotsam. Timbers and beams poked out at varying angles, propped as much as ten feet high against the trestles. There were enormous globs of fat and grease discarded by the slaughterhouses upriver and the paint factories contributed a share of chemicals.
As the last car of the train cleared the edge of the bridge on June 22, 1969, one last flurry of sparks fell to the river. It ignited. Within minutes, the flames were five stories high. This wasn’t the first time that the polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio. The firemen in the boats took only thirty minutes to smother it. It was a small affair.
But this small affair was witnessed this time by national reporters. Changes in the nation’s environmental stewardship were soon underway.