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Years after Cuyahoga fire, Cleveland embraces "Burning River"

Elizabeth Miller

When the Cuyahoga River caught fire on June 22, 1969, it badly scarred Cleveland’s image.  Some other polluted rivers were burning in American cities, but Cleveland’s fire was highlighted in Time magazine.  The river and city became the butt of jokes -- and the inspiration for a Randy Newman tune. But today, a new generation is embracing the “Burning River” name. 

As part of a tradition, the Burning River Roller Derby chose a name that represented Cleveland without saying Cleveland.  Team vice president Lindsay Chapman says the Burning River name carries an important message in the rough world of roller derby.

“We like the toughness that that implies," Chapman says. “Coming from a city that had a river that caught on fire?  You know, nobody talks down on Cleveland around us, that’s for sure.”

Chapman says it’s better to embrace the name than be embarrassed by it.

Plenty of others agree.  More than 20 area businesses, products and athletic teams carry the name.  There’s a Burning River Crossfit, Burning River Lacrosse, Burning River Tattoo and Burning River Hot Sauce. There’s even a Burning River Zen Center.

Last year, Brad McBride and his wife opened Burning River Adventures. The kayak rental service is far upriver, in a stretch that wasn’t as polluted as the site of the 1969 fire. But McBride says the name honors how the river has changed from its industrial past to its recreational future.

“I think it’s more of a tribute to the timeline of the river,” he says.

Other business owners have a more practical reason to use the name.  Kim Kitchen of Burning River Marketing wanted a name that reflected her location, so small business owners in the area know she’s local, too. 

“If we send you an email about improving your search results, the name Burning River Marketing will indicate that we’re not from India or we’re not from Thailand, or some of these offshore internet marketing firms,” Kitchen says.

But Kitchen and her partner worried that potential clients might see the name in a negative way. So they added a phoenix to their logo.

“We don’t really have flames in our logo as much as we have the phoenix coming out of the river to show that it’s a rebirth,” she adds.  “No shame.”

Patrick Conway and his brother Dan opened Great Lakes Brewing Company in 1988.  They wanted to name their beers after people or events in local history.

“As a marketing effort, we decided to try to use as many names that have some kind of civic connection,” says Patrick Conway.

Naming your pale ale after the “Burning River” is one of the biggest local connections you can make.  The Conway brothers did that back in 1990, overlooking the negative perception that might come with it.

“It’s still kind of irreverent and cheeky, and we like the fact that it gives us the platform to talk about water,” he says.

Dr. Jill Stephens Fleisher, a sociology professor at Baldwin Wallace University outside Cleveland, says businesses choose the Burning River name because they identify with it -- and realize it’s a part of their industrial heritage.

“We should acknowledge that, celebrate it,” Fleisher says.  “Not celebrate the burning of the river necessarily, but celebrate our industrial heritage and that we came out of the ashes of deindustrialization and that we’re a strong region again.”

That branding can have a direct impact on the Cuyahoga.

Great Lakes Brewing started the Burning River Foundation in 2007 to raise money for causes related to clean water research.  This year, the foundation’s focused on restoring Cleveland’s Coast Guard Station, which sits on the river. 

Patrick Conway says he’d also like to stage forums at the brewery to talk about sources of pollution that affect the Cuyahoga.

Reporter/producer Elizabeth Miller joined ideastream after a stint at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., where she served as an intern on the National Desk, pitching stories about everything from a gentrified Brooklyn deli to an app for lost dogs. Before that, she covered weekend news at WAKR in Akron and interned at WCBE, a Columbus NPR affiliate. Elizabeth grew up in Columbus before moving north to attend Baldwin Wallace, where she graduated with a degree in broadcasting and mass communications.