The CUYAHOGA RIVER FIRE (22 June 1969) dramatized the extent of the river's pollution and the ineffectiveness of the city's lagging pollution abatement program. The fire, which witnesses reported reached as high as 5 stories, began at 12 P.M. and lasted about 20 minutes before it was brought under control. A fireboat battled the blaze on the water while units from 3 fire battalions brought the flames on the railroad trestles under control. The bridge belonging to the Norfolk & Western Railway Co. sustained $45,000 in damage, forcing the company to close it to rail traffic. The other trestle, belonging to the NEWBURGH & SOUTH SHORE RAILROAD CO., incurred damages estimated at $5,000 but remained open. The blaze apparently was caused by an accumulation of oily wastes and debris on the river under 2 wooden trestles at the foot of Campbell Rd. hill, SE, in Cleveland. According to a subsequent investigation by Cleveland's Bureau of Industrial Wastes, the fire probably came from a discharge of highly volatile petroleum derivatives with a sufficiently low flash point to be ignited by a chance occurrence at the site of the railroad bridges.
Cleveland's reputation was severely damaged by the fire because at the time there was national concern about the pollution of Lake Erie and the rivers and streams that fed into it—particularly the Cuyahoga River, which was among the most polluted in the country. Ironically, another oil slick burned on the Cuyahoga River in 1952 causing an estimated $1.5 million damage without attracting national attention.