Photographing the Cuyahoga River, 40 Years Later

"The Crooked River" shot in Cleveland

"The Crooked River" shot in Boston Heights, Ohio

In honor of the 40-year anniversary of the Cuyhoga River catching fire, my friend, photographer Greg Ruffing, has agreed to share works from an ongoing project to document the river and its surroundings.

The Cleveland-area river has earned some tempered praise for making environmental strides since a passing train lit the oily water ablaze in 1969.

The event is credited in part with inspiring the environmental movement that led to the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Local environmentalists have dubbed 2009 “The Year of the River.” However, the EPA disappointed Cleveland environmental activists by refusing to remove the entire river from its list of polluted waterways, The Plain Dealer reports.

The river, as seen from The Flats

Here’s a little about Greg’s project in his own words:

“I’m not necessarily trying to photograph the river from an environmental perspective or make comment about its ecological condition — so in a sense the “timeliness” of this week’s anniversary is somewhat irrelevant to my work and any perceived overlaps in the imagery are likely coincidental (as will hopefully be made clear further on in the text).

Rather, I’ve been exploring the river more as a greater existential symbol of time and experience (both collective and personal) and its symbiosis with the cities and towns through which it flows. The Cuyahoga, as any other river, has historically served many functions for its surrounding lands in terms of ecology, industry, commerce, recreation and more.

A memorial in Sagamore Hills, Ohio

A memorial in Sagamore Hills, Ohio

“My parents and their parents and further generations past grew up in various towns along the river’s meandering path from rural Geauga County south to Akron and back north to Cleveland where it empties into Lake Erie (the word Cuyahoga literally means “crooked river” in the Iroquois language).

Again, as seen from The Flats

As seen from The Flats

The river has been a physical and spatial link between different periods of our lives, so for me it is also as much about certain aspects of personal journey. And I wonder to what extent (if any) this can be extrapolated to parallel larger, more universal, human experiences manifested throughout time in the people and places seen here.”

An abandoned boat in Brooklyn, Ohio

An abandoned boat in Brooklyn, Ohio

Don, scrap metal inspector, Cleveland

Don, scrap metal inspector, Cleveland

Trash, Boston Heights, Ohio

Trash, Boston Heights, Ohio

Follow this ongoing project at


Filed under Featured, the environment

3 responses to “Photographing the Cuyahoga River, 40 Years Later

  1. Special K

    I love these pictures. Thanks for sharing this beautiful work.

    When I lived in Cleveland, I always liked how people in the city had a kind of perverse pride in the river having caught fire – witness Burning River Pale Ale, and the Burning River Festival.

  2. These are great photos and I think Greg is right in the way he is viewing the river and how it touches people’s lives. The Buffalo River ran by Republic Steel, National Aniline and Dow Chemical and it could have caught on fire as easily, though I don’t know that it ever did. Always scared me as a kid to drive over it. Mark lived in Cleveland at the time of that fire. He notes that it was actually the last time the river caught on fire which was why it surprised people at the time. Apparently it had not done so for a while before that. We were going to raise a glass of Burning River on the anniversary but forgot. My chili recipe calls for beer so I always make Burning River Chili.

  3. Pingback: GLUEspace » Blog Archive » Rust Wire News Round-up

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