The Pop History Dig

“Burn On, Big River…”
Cuyahoga River Fires

1952: Photo from an earlier Cuyahoga River fire, caused by the river’s severe pollution, shows firemen on railroad bridge at left battling the blaze on the river below.
1952: Photo from an earlier Cuyahoga River fire, caused by the river’s severe pollution, shows firemen on railroad bridge at left battling the blaze on the river below.
In June 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire, a river long polluted with oily wastes, chemicals, and debris. The river fire, coming at a time of emerging national concern over pollution, made big news, and became something of a famous disaster. The incident helped give momentum to a newly emerging national environmental movement.

Only months before, on the beaches of Santa Barbara, California, an oil spill from a Unocal Oil Company offshore rig in January 1969, had soiled some 30 miles of California coastline, killing sea birds and other wildlife. Oil industry pollution and oily wastes were part of the Cuyahoga River concoction as well, described by Time magazine as being “chocolate-brown, oily, [and] bubbling with subsurface gases.”

1952: A burning tug boat gets the attention of fire hoses during Cuyahoga River fire fight. Photo, Cleveland Plain Dealer.
1952: A burning tug boat gets the attention of fire hoses during Cuyahoga River fire fight. Photo, Cleveland Plain Dealer.
In fact, it was the Time magazine story that helped bring national attention to the Cuyahoga River and nearby Lake Erie into which it flowed, both of which became poster images for the severe water pollution of those times. U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), a promoter of the first Earth Day in 1970, would later invoke the Cuyahoga-in-flames as an example of the nation’s most severe environmental disasters. Carol Browner, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s, would later recall in speeches the impression that images of the burning Cuyahoga had on her. But the Cuyahoga River fire of June 1969 wasn’t the worst the river had experienced. A 1952 fire – shown in the two photos above – was much worse. Time magazine in its August 1969 story, had used one of those photos, incorrectly attributing it as the 1969 fire. Turns out, there is a long history of Cuyahoga River fires – at least a dozen or more dating from the 1860s – several of which resulted in more damage than the 1969 incident. More on those in a moment. Still, when the June 1969 Cuyahoga River fire occurred, many people found it surprising that pollution could be so bad that a river would burn. That wasn’t supposed to happen. “[A] river lighting on fire was almost biblical,” said Sierra Club President Adam Werbach referring to the Cuyahoga fire during a CNN interview some years later. “And it energized American action because people understood that that should not be happening.”

“Burn On”
Randy Newman
1972

There’s a red moon rising
On the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

There’s a red moon rising
On the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

There’s an oil barge winding
Down the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

There’s an oil barge winding
Down the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake

Cleveland, city of light, city of magic
Cleveland, city of light, you’re calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
‘Cause the Cuyahoga River
goes smokin’ through my dreams

Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on

Now the Lord can make you tumble
Lord can make you turn
The Lord can make you overflow
But the Lord can’t make you burn

Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on

The Cuyahoga’s plight – and particularly its association with oil pollution – caught the attention of singer/ songwriter Randy Newman, who penned a famous song about the river’s tendency to catch fire. “Burn On” was the name of the song, which Newman released with his 1972 hit album, Sail Away, an album brimming full of musical satire. Newman’s river song, however, was quite on the mark, conveying at least some of the history and causes of the Cuyahoga River’s pollution problem.

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“Burn On”-Randy Newman

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Newman would explain that he was spurred to write the song after seeing news reports about the 1969 fire. To be fair, by the early 1970s, there were no more fires on the Cuyahoga, though it remained severely polluted for at least another decade. The cleanup of the river had begun by the time of Newman’s song – though ever so slowly, and slogged on for many years thereafter. Still, Newman’s song captured the historical demise of the river and one of its primary culprits, oil. His lyrics at the end of the song also captured the “unnatural” act of a river burning:

Now the Lord can make you tumble
Lord can make you turn
The Lord can make you overflow
But the Lord can’t make you burn

In later years, other musicians would also write music referencing the river, including REM’s. “Cuyahoga” of 1986 and Adam Again’s “River on Fire” of 1992. More on these songs a bit later.

The Cuyahoga River watershed is located in Northeastern Ohio. The river travels about 100 miles from its headwaters in rural Geauga County where it begins as two bubbling springs, then winding its way to Cleveland where it drains into Lake Erie. Named “the crooked river” by native Americans, “Cuyahoga” is an Iroquoian word, befitting the river’s turns and changing course.

Map of the Cuyahoga River watershed, showing the river's many tributaries and its "U" shaped course on its way to Cleveland and Lake Erie.
Map of the Cuyahoga River watershed, showing the river's many tributaries and its "U" shaped course on its way to Cleveland and Lake Erie.
The river’s East and West branches, originating from respective springs, later combine to form the main Cuyahoga, which flows southwest at first, through thick forests and past rich farm fields, until it reaches the urban areas near Akron, Ohio. At this point, the geology of an east-west continental divide forces a sharp northwestern turn, as the river then flows north. Here too, the once-important Ohio & Erie Canal ran parallel to the river to assist in its commerce. But it is this “lower portion” of the Cuyahoga – the Akron-to-Cleveland-to-Lake Erie segment – where industrial activity was most intense for decades, with steel plants, oil refineries, paint and chemical works running along the river’s banks. One of the largest oil refineries in U.S. history, in fact – John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of Ohio – accounted for at least some of the pollution that fueled the Cuyahoga’s infamous fires. By the end of the Civil War – and before Rockefeller began buying up his competitors and consolidating oil properties – there were at least 20 oil refineries in the Cleveland area. A common practice in the early days of the oil refining industry was to dump the unusable portions of refined crude oil – one of which was gasoline – into nearby creeks and rivers. Rockefeller himself would report that “thousands and hundreds of thousands of barrels of it floated down the creeks and rivers, and the ground was saturated with it, in the constant effort to get rid of it.” No surprise then that fires would occur.

Cleveland Press headlines, circa 1883.
Cleveland Press headlines, circa 1883.
The Cuyahoga River had burned as early as 1868. One major fire in the river valley occurred at the Standard Oil refinery and other properties in early February 1883. A Cleveland Press account of the fire, which was reported while the blaze was still ongoing, blared the headline, “Furious Flames!!” That report went on to note in sub-heads that a “fast floating fire” set off “the most terrific explosions” at the refinery, adding that “tank after tank” and “still after still” blew up.

Prior to the fire, on Friday, February 2, 1893, Cleveland had a combination of rising temperature and torrential rains that melted existing snow, producing some of the worst floods in the city’s history. Much of the Flats area and the Cuyahoga River valley were in flood stage. But then came the fire. It began at the Shurmer & Teagle Refinery. However waste oil from a Standard Oil source upstream on Kingsbury Run had been leaking for hours. As reported in Cleveland’s Greatest Disasters: “One by one, nine enormous Standard Oil storage tanks, each containing from five to 16,000 barrels of oil, kerosene, or gasoline blew up over the next 12 hours, adding thousands of additional, lethal gallons to the inflammable torrent rushing toward downtown Cleveland. At one point, no fewer than seven oil tanks were burning at once.” The blaze went on for three days, and Cleveland was nearly a goner, saved by the blocking action of a jammed-up culvert and heroic firemen battling the inferno. By Monday, February 5th, firemen were still pouring water on the various fires. In the end, the damage included nine large storage tanks, 30 stills, and other Standard Oil property. Standard alone had between $350,00 and $300,000 in losses, with all other businesses suffering losses of about $500,000.

A portion of the Standard Oil refining complex in Cleveland, Ohio, as photographed in 1899.
A portion of the Standard Oil refining complex in Cleveland, Ohio, as photographed in 1899.

Still more oil and waste fires occurred on the Cuyahoga River in later years. Four years after the 1883 blaze there was another of lesser note, and perhaps others unrecorded. In 1912, a spark from a tugboat on the Cuyahoga ignited oil leaking from the Standard Oil cargo slip, triggering several explosions and a raging inferno. That fire killed five men and destroyed several boats. In 1914 a river fire reportedly threatened downtown Cleveland until a change in the wind altered its course. A fire in 1922 ignited in the same area as the 1912 Standard Oil dock fire. And in 1936 the river ignited and burned for five days. An ore carrier was damaged by a 1941 river fire. Other fires occurred in 1930, 1948, 1949, 1951. Then came the big one – the 1952 fire – which Jonathan Adler, environmental historian at Case Western Reserve University, describes in a 2003 Fordham Environmental Law Journal article on the history of Cuyahoga River pollution. Adler also describes the events leading up to the fire:

Nov. 2, 1952: Headlines in a Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer tell of an oil-slick fire on the Cuyahoga River.
Nov. 2, 1952: Headlines in a Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer tell of an oil-slick fire on the Cuyahoga River.

…In 1952, leaking oil from the Standard Oil Company facility was accused of creating, “the greatest fire hazard in Cleveland,” a two-inch thick oil slick on the river. In spots, the slick spanned the width of the river. Although many companies had taken action to limit oil seepage on the river, others failed to cooperate with fire officials. It was only a matter of time before disaster struck. On the afternoon of November 1, 1952, the Cuyahoga ignited… near the Great Lakes Towing Company’s shipyard, resulting in a five-alarm fire. The next morning’s Cleveland Plain Dealer led with a banner headline, “Oil Slick Fire Ruins Flats Shipyard.”[ shown at right]. Photos taken at the scene are incredible; the river was engulfed in smoke and flame. Losses were substantial, estimated between $500,000 and $1.5 million, including the Jefferson Avenue bridge. The only reason no one died was that it started on a Saturday afternoon, when few shipyard employees were on duty.

1951: Oil Burning in the Cuyahoga River, located in the downtown Cleveland Flats area.
1951: Oil Burning in the Cuyahoga River, located in the downtown Cleveland Flats area.
July 1964: Portion of a Bill Roberts’ Cleveland Press cartoon depicting industrial pollution on the Cuyahoga River.
July 1964: Portion of a Bill Roberts’ Cleveland Press cartoon depicting industrial pollution on the Cuyahoga River.
Cleveland reporter, Richard Ellers, dipping his hand in the Cuyahoga’s oily soup, was surprised by its thickness.
Cleveland reporter, Richard Ellers, dipping his hand in the Cuyahoga’s oily soup, was surprised by its thickness.
1960s: A Cleveland Press cartoon from Bill Roberts has a distressed fish from the polluted Cuyahoga River seeking help from President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ).
1960s: A Cleveland Press cartoon from Bill Roberts has a distressed fish from the polluted Cuyahoga River seeking help from President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ).
September 1964: Councilmen Edward F. Katalinas (left), Henry Sinkiewicz, and  John Pilch examine oil-soaked white cloth dipped in the Cuyahoga. Photo, Cleveland Press.
September 1964: Councilmen Edward F. Katalinas (left), Henry Sinkiewicz, and John Pilch examine oil-soaked white cloth dipped in the Cuyahoga. Photo, Cleveland Press.
June 23, 1969: Photo of fire boat attending to hot spots and bridge timbers following Cuyahoga River fire the day before.
June 23, 1969: Photo of fire boat attending to hot spots and bridge timbers following Cuyahoga River fire the day before.
June 23, 1969: Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, center, and Ben Stefanski, city utilities director, right, during press conference near site of previous day’s Cuyahoga River fire.
June 23, 1969: Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, center, and Ben Stefanski, city utilities director, right, during press conference near site of previous day’s Cuyahoga River fire.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, reporting on the 1952 fire, quoted Cleveland Fire Prevention Chief Bernard W. Mulcahy on the front page saying: “We have photographs that show nearly six inches of oil on the river. Our reports show the oil there comes from three sources: Oil brought down Kingsbury Run, from Standard Oil Co., and from Great Lakes Towing itself.”

The fire of 1952 wasn’t the last time the Cuyahoga or its environs would catch fire. Another smaller blaze had occurred a year earlier in the Cleveland Flats area, shown in the photo at left. But the big 1952 fire may have been a turning point, as some environmental historians see it – the point at which local citizen ire is aroused about the problem, with efforts aimed at bringing about change. Still, it would be years before the local recognition and the local resolve would generate the political will at the state and federal levels to write the laws and commit the funding needed to impose standards and clean things up. One preventive measure that was sometimes used along the river in the 1950s and 1960s was the use of a patrolling fireboat to check for oil slick build-ups, especially near bridges, and try to clear those away with high-pressure water hoses.

During the mid-1960s, the Cuyahoga’s pollution drew the attention of Cleveland Press cartoonist Bill Roberts, who did several cartoons on the river and nearby Lake Erie. A few journalists were active as well. Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Richard Ellers was shown in one 1960s news photo dipping his hand in the Cuyahoga’s goop. And by 1964, a trio of Cleveland city councilmen was photographed retrieving an oil-soaked white cloth they had just dipped in the polluted river.

Cartoonist Bill Roberts also did a mid-1960s Cleveland Press cartoon showing President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) listening to the plea of a Cuyahoga River fish amid pollution and the river’s stench, suggestion being that federal help was needed. But despite the fact that federal laws such as the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 and the 1965 Federal Water Pollution Control Act were on the books, there was little use or effective enforcement of those laws. Yet, federal reports, such as one issued in October 1968, identified the Cuyahoga as one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the nation.

By November 1968 there were plans drawn up in Cleveland to upgrade the city’s sewer systems, as an impressive $100 million bond issue for that purpose had been approved by voters. But then came the fire of 1969.


Fire of 1969

On Sunday, June 22nd, the Cuyahoga caught fire for what was believed to be the 13th time in its history, depending on how many fires were actually counted and/or reported. A slick of oily debris caught fire that day near the Republic Steel operations after a spark from an overhead rail car ignited it. As the burning slick floated down the Cuyahoga, it made its way under the wooden bridges of two key railroad trestles and set them on fire. At times during the blaze, flames climbed as high as five stories, according to Battalion 7 Fire chief Bernard E. Campbell, cited in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next day. A fireboat battled the flames on the water while fire trucks and firemen from three battalions fought the fire on the trestles, where they soon brought the fire under control. At the time, Campbell reported that a bridge belonging to Norfolk and Western Railway Co. sustained $45,000 damage, closing both of its tracks. The other, a one-track trestle, remained opened. The fire did $5,000 damage to the timbers of this bridge, a Newburgh & South Shore Railroad Co. crossing.

On the day following the fire, June 23, 1969, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a photo that showed a fire boat crew hosing down hot spots and smoldering timbers at one of the railroad bridges. Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes also held a press conference that day using the charred railroad bridge as part of his backdrop. Along with Ben Stefanski, city utilities director, Stokes promised to fight for a cleaner river. He also announced that he was filing a formal complaint with the state, claiming that a clean river was beyond the city’s control. “We have no jurisdiction over what’s dumped in there,” he told The Plain Dealer that day.

In point of fact, the state of Ohio, like other states, did issue pollution discharge permits to industry, permits which purported to set discharge limits, but these were essentially “permits to pollute” and were rarely enforced. The federal government was no better. Even though federal pollution control laws had been enacted in 1949 and 1965, these were very weak laws, with little money attached, and little real help to the states. Another older federal law – the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, also known as the “Refuse Act ” – had viable provisions of enforcement, and was even upheld in one 1966 Supreme Court case for oily wastes, but it too was rarely invoked. At his press conference, Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes had criticized the federal government, noting their jurisdiction over the river for interstate commerce.

Meanwhile, the notoriety of the Cuyahoga’s June 1969 fire soon traveled around the country, primarily due to the August 1969 Time magazine story. Time ran a brief story describing the polluted river as “chocolate-brown, oily, [and] bubbling with subsurface gases.” The Cuyahoga, said Time, “oozes rather than flows.” But Time also incorrectly used a dramatic Cleveland Plain Dealer photo from the earlier 1952 fire showing firemen on a railroad bridge battling a blazing tugboat on the river (photo used at the top of this story). Time’s mis-casting of the photo as the 1969 fire appears to have helped spread that impression of the blaze to other news organizations and the general public, furthering “the legend” of the 1969 fire. Still, the river had burned in any case, and that’s what helped ignite calls for action on water pollution nationwide.


Earth Day 1970

A throng of thousands along New York City’s 5th Ave., as far as the eye could see, came out for Earth Day 1970 demonstration, of April 22nd, receiving front-page coverage the next day.
A throng of thousands along New York City’s 5th Ave., as far as the eye could see, came out for Earth Day 1970 demonstration, of April 22nd, receiving front-page coverage the next day.
The first Earth Day of April 22, 1970, which launched the modern environmental movement, brought demonstrations by some 20 million Americans in towns and cities across the country. The turnout in New York City brought out thousands who thronged 5th Avenue as far as the eye could see. The demonstration made the front page of the New York Times the next day with headline, “Millions Join Earth Day Observances Across the Nation.” In Cleveland, a march to the Cuyahoga River by Cleveland State University students protesting the river’s pollution was also one of the demonstrations that day. And the Cuyahoga River fire of June 1969 would also be invoked in more than few Earth Day speeches and news accounts that day. Later in 1970, the Cuyahoga received more attention when National Geographic included the river as part of its December 1970 issue and cover story devoted to “Our Ecological Crisis.” The magazine ran a short story and graphic of a six-mile segment of the Cuyahoga showing how it received polluted wastes from steel mills, chemical plants, and other industries along its banks. Meanwhile, the outlook for the river’s health was not good. One report from the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration at the time of the 1969 fire offered this assessment: “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.” But change was on the way.

Dec. 4, 1970: At White House ceremony in Wash., D.C., William Ruckelshaus is sworn in as head of EPA as President Richard Nixon looks on. Photo, Charles Tasnadi/AP.
Dec. 4, 1970: At White House ceremony in Wash., D.C., William Ruckelshaus is sworn in as head of EPA as President Richard Nixon looks on. Photo, Charles Tasnadi/AP.
With growing public pressure for more pollution control, political action followed at the local, state and national levels. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – a key U.S. law that established national policy for promoting and protecting the environment – was passed by Congress in December 1969 and signed by President Richard Nixon on January 1, 1970. That law also established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and put in place an environmental review process assessing the potential impacts of all major federal actions on the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – a new, independent federal agency with wide ranging jurisdiction over environmental media – was created in December 1970 with 38-year-old William Ruckelshaus, a former Justice Department Assistant Attorney General, named its first Administrator. On December 11, 1970, a few days after being sworn in, Ruckelshaus went on the offensive against three cities with water pollution problems: Cleveland , Detroit, and Atlanta, giving the mayors of those cities six months to come into compliance or face court action.

The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, was churning out tougher environmental laws – one of which was the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, also known as the Clean Water Act. This law – first passed by Congress in October 1972, was vetoed by President Nixon,The Clean Water Act of 1972 sought to make all U.S. waterways “fishable and swimmable” by 1985. but finally became law after the House and Senate successfully over-rode the President’s veto on October 18, 1972. The Clean Water Act — aimed at making all U.S. waterways “fishable and swimmable” by 1985 — totally revised water pollution law and regulation, shifting the control mechanism to “effluent limitations” with a long-range goal of “zero discharge.” More pollution control money eventually came to states and cities. In Ohio, meanwhile, the Ohio EPA was created on October 23, 1972, combining environmental programs that were previously scattered throughout several state departments. And in Cleveland, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District took over sewer operations for the city in the early 1970s and the long, hard fight to cleanup the Cuyahoga began. Progress, however, would not come overnight.

“Cuyahoga in Song”
R.E.M. & Adam Again
1986-1992

In addition to Randy Newman’s “Burn On, Big River” of 1972, included earlier, other musicians have also used the Cuyahoga in song.

In 1986, the group R.E.M. released a song titled “Cuyahoga,” which offers a kind of lamentation for a lost river, noting at one point, “we burned the river down.”

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“Cuyahoga”-R.E.M.

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But the R.E.M. song is also about the river as a nostalgic place; a place where “we swam;” a place where photographs were taken and memories made — a place sadly, now gone; a place degraded. Among those lyrics are, for example:

This is where we walked,
this is where we swam
Take a picture here,
take a souvenir
Cuyahoga
Cuyahoga, gone

In 1992, the river’s burning was still present enough in cultural memory for Adam Again, an alternative rock band, to use the river in a metaphorical way, so stated in their song, “River on Fire.” This song appears to offer a parallel between a possible disaster in a personal relationship to the actual disaster that was the Cuyahoga burning. Some of the ending lyrics in that song are as follows:

…I could be happy,
and you could be miserable
I’ll grab a metaphor out of the air
The Cuyahoga river on fire

I know a lot about the history
of Cleveland, Ohio
Disasters that have happened there
Like the Cuyahoga river on fire.

And apart from music, there is also at least one beer named after the Cuyahoga’s infamous history – “Burning River Pale Ale” (see below).

As the Federal Clean Water Act first came into effect, EPA became the primary enforcer, sharing that role with state and cities in later years — in Cleveland’s case, the regional sewer district. Along the Cuyahoga, stiff fines were levied for violators and some polluters were put out of business. Local and state citizen and environmental groups helped as well, dating to the Kent Environmental Council in 1970 which held one of the Cuyahoga River clean-ups. Dozens of other groups would form in later years, including Friends of The Crooked River, and others.


Long Fight

Still, by 1984, when biologists for the Ohio EPA began counting fish in the middle-to-lower section of the Cuyahoga River — the worst polluted section from Akron to Cleveland — they found very few. In fact, they found less than a dozen fish in total, and even some of those were pollution-tolerant species such as gizzard shad, while others had deformities. But gradually, things began to turn for the better.

At first, improvements came mostly in the upper reaches of the river in its more rural counties. By the summer of 2008, unofficial surveys from Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District were finding high levels of aquatic life in the river. EPA, then following up with its own survey, reported 40 different fish species in the river, including steelhead trout, northern pike, and other clean-water fish.

Since the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has invested more than $3.5 billion in new sewer systems to help clean up the river. Over the next thirty years or so, it is projected that Cleveland will spend another $5 billion or more to insure the upkeep of its wastewater system. The river is now home to about sixty different species of fish, and there has not been another river fire since 1969.

In 1998, EPA designated the Cuyahoga as one of 14 American Heritage Rivers, those which have played a key role in shaping the nation’s environmental, economic and cultural landscape.

In 2000, some 51 square miles of river valley between Akron and Cleveland was established as the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This section of river valley was previously designated a national recreation area in 1974. Today the park includes forests, wetlands, canals, a waterfalls, and more than 125 miles of hiking trails, including the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail, which follows the route of the former canal. In some sections of the park, bald eagles and otters have returned to the river.

Cuyahoga River graphic depicting four decades of progress and calling for an end to all those bad Cleveland jokes.
Cuyahoga River graphic depicting four decades of progress and calling for an end to all those bad Cleveland jokes.
By June 2009, at the 40th anniversary of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, improvements along the river had been impressive enough for some to call for a formal EPA de-listing of the river regarding certain pollution criteria.

EPA officials, however, denied the request, though commending the community on progress made, but saying there was still some distance to go. One graphic at that time also called for an end to all the bad jokes about Cleveland centered around the Cuyahoga’s past history.

Meanwhile, in the Cleveland Flats area of the river, business investors found the area attractive enough to begin converting parts of the abandoned industrial landscape into an entertainment district featuring restaurants, nightclubs, and music venues. And in some of those locations, patrons at pubs and restaurants today may well be drinking a local beer named “Burning River Pale Ale.”


More Than a Beer…

Great Lakes Brewing Co.'s "Burning River Pale Ale," seems to have helped elevate the Cuyahoga River to iconic status on behalf  of environmental good.
Great Lakes Brewing Co.'s "Burning River Pale Ale," seems to have helped elevate the Cuyahoga River to iconic status on behalf of environmental good.
Great Lakes Brewing Company, a brewery and brewpub in Cleveland, Ohio, was founded in 1988. In the early 1990s, Great Lakes named one of its craft beers “Burning River Pale Ale,” a beverage described as “assertively hopped with citrusy and piney Cascade hops.” The founders of Great Lakes Brewing are Dan and Pat Conway. In 2001, they also helped found the Burning River Fest, now an annual outdoor festival event of summer fun, music, and food celebrated on Whiskey Island and Wendy Park at the Cleveland end of the Cuyahoga. The Burning River Fest, in turn, has spawned the Burning River Foundation, which uses proceeds from the Burning River Fest to help fund environmental and water conservation activities in Northeast Ohio to the tune of some $400,000 by last count. In recent years, the Burning River Fest has attracted more than 5,000 visitors to its two-day festival.

“The year 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire,” Pat Conway has stated. “The publicity from that incident spurred all of the environmental legislation that followed. I would love to see this Burning River Fest become the largest environmental celebration in the country by that time.” The burning Cuyahoga, then, has become something of a cultural icon, now turned to good advantage. So yes, in the words of Randy Newman’s famous song – but for an altogether different, good, and honorable purpose – “burn on big river, burn on.”

See also at this website the Politics & Society page for stories in that category, and also the Annals of Music page for music-related stories. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. - Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 12May 2014
Last Update: 15 May 2014
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Burn On, Big River…,” Cuyahoga River Fires,
PopHistoryDig.com, May 12, 2014.

____________________________________



Sources, Links & Additional Information

1960s: Citizens of Cleveland, Ohio protest over the pollution of Lake Erie. Source: Cleveland Foundation.
1960s: Citizens of Cleveland, Ohio protest over the pollution of Lake Erie. Source: Cleveland Foundation.
December 1937:  Aerial view of meandering Cuyahoga River in winter snow wending its way toward Lake Erie at Cleveland, Ohio. photo, National Archives.
December 1937: Aerial view of meandering Cuyahoga River in winter snow wending its way toward Lake Erie at Cleveland, Ohio. photo, National Archives.
1961: Fireboat on the Cuyahoga River using high-pressure water hoses to clear fire-prone oily build-ups.
1961: Fireboat on the Cuyahoga River using high-pressure water hoses to clear fire-prone oily build-ups.
1964: U.S. Congressmen visit pollution problem on the Cuyahoga River; L-to-R: John Blatnik, Charles Vanik & Mike Feighan.  Cleveland Press photo.
1964: U.S. Congressmen visit pollution problem on the Cuyahoga River; L-to-R: John Blatnik, Charles Vanik & Mike Feighan. Cleveland Press photo.
River bank warning sign of the Cuyahoga River’s flammability, circa 1950s-1960s period.
River bank warning sign of the Cuyahoga River’s flammability, circa 1950s-1960s period.
Cuyahoga River on fire, possibly 1952 fire.
Cuyahoga River on fire, possibly 1952 fire.
Cover of Randy Newman’s 1972 album, “Sail Away,” which includes the Cuyahoga River song, “Burn On.”
Cover of Randy Newman’s 1972 album, “Sail Away,” which includes the Cuyahoga River song, “Burn On.”
Logo/poster for the Burning River Fest, held every summer at Whiskey Island on the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland, Ohio, the proceeds from which help benefit environmental work.
Logo/poster for the Burning River Fest, held every summer at Whiskey Island on the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland, Ohio, the proceeds from which help benefit environmental work.

Robert H. Clifford, “City’s Lake and River Fronts in Constant Peril of Conflagration Without the Protection of Fire Tugs,” Cleveland Press, April 25, 1936, p.1.

Dan Williams, “Rivermen Cite Fire Peril, Ask City for Protection,” Cleveland Press, March 11, 1941, p. 1.

WKYC-TV (NBC Cleveland, OH), The Crooked River Dies, A 1967 public affairs film in the Montage series, at YouTube.com (4:45 clip).

“Oil Slick Fire Damages 2 River Spans,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio),June 23, 1969, p. 11-C.

“Cleveland River So Dirty It Burns,” New York Times, June 28, 1969.

“America’s Sewage System and the Price of Optimism,” Time, Friday, August 1, 1969.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Cuyahoga River,” EPA.gov.

John Stark Bellamy, II, Cleveland’s Greatest Disasters!: 16 Tragic True Tales of Death and Destruction, Gray & Company, 2009.

Michael D. Roberts, “Rockefeller and His Oil Empire Issue,” IBmag.com, July/August 2012.

Jonathan H. Adler, “Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing a History of Environmental Protection,” Fordham Environmental Law Journal, 2003.

Jonathan Adler, “Smoking Out the Cuyahoga Fire Fable,” National Review, June 22, 2004.

“Cuyahoga River Put Among the Most Rank,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 3, 1968.

Jack A. Seamonds, “In Cleveland, Clean Waters Give New Breath of Life,” U.S. News & World Report, June 18, 1984, p. 68.

“Sad, Soiled Waters: The Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie,” National Geographic, December 1970.

John Kuehner, “30 Years Ago, Polluted Cuyahoga Had No Fish; Now They’re Thriving,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 18, 2002, p. B-2.

“The Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969,” Pratie.BlogSpot.com, March 16, 2005.

PBS film, The Return of the Cuyahoga, April 2008.

David Stradling and Richard Stradling, “Perceptions of a Burning River: Deindustrialization and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River,” Environmental History, July 2008, pp. 515-35.

Michael Scott, “After the Flames: The Story Behind the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire and its Recovery,” The Plain Dealer(Cleveland, Ohio), January 4, 2009.

Michael Scott, “Cuyahoga River Fire Galvanized Clean Water and the Environment as a Public Issue,” The Plain Dealer, April 12, 2009.

Michael Scott, “Cuyahoga River Fire Story Comes out a Little Crooked on Way to Getting Tale Straight,” The Plain Dealer, April 12, 2009.

Michael Scott, “Scientists Monitor Cuyahoga River Quality to Adhere to Clean Water Act,” The Plain Dealer, April 12, 2009.

“Year of the River,” Brown Flynn, May 1, 2009.

Joe Koncelik, “Ending 40 Years Of Cleveland Jokes: A River’s Recovery,” Ohio Environ-mental Law Blog, June 14, 2009.

Michael Scott, “U.S. EPA Commends Cuyahoga Cleanup — But Won’t Take River off List of Polluted Waters,” The Plain Dealer, June 22, 2009.

“Fire on the River: Forty Years Later, a Much-Improved Cuyahoga, and Much Work Still to do,” Akron Beacon Journal, Friday, June 26, 2009.

Sharon Broussard (Northeast Ohio Media Group), “EPA Should Take Parts of the Cuyahoga River off the ‘Polluted’ List,” Cleveland.com, July 3, 2009.

Michael Scott, Healthy Fish, Insects Show Cuyahoga River Also Much Healthier,” The Plain Dealer, March 2, 2009 / Updated, January 14, 2010.

Special Series, “Year of the River: A Look at the Cuyahoga River 40 Years After it Caught Fire,” The Plain Dealer, 2011.

Michael Scott, “Cuyahoga River Fire 40 Years Ago Ignited an Ongoing Cleanup Campaign,” The Plain Dealer, March 7, 2011.

James F. McCarty, “Cuyahoga River Sediment Is Getting Less Toxic, Possibly Saving the Region Millions of Dollars,” The Plain Dealer, March 17, 2011.

“Cuyahoga River Pollution Photos,” Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Libraries, Cleveland, Ohio.

Michael Rotman, “Cuyahoga River Fire,” Cleveland Historical.org, Accessed May 2, 2014.

“Cuyahoga River Restoration,” YouTube .com, Posted by WFN: World Fishing Network (discusses the last 40 years of clean-up, returning fish populations, lower river development, and the Cuyahoga’s designation as one of 14 Heritage Rivers).

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Burning River Foundation, Cleveland, Ohio.

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Kevin Courrier, Randy Newman’s American Dreams, ECW Press, 2005.

“R.E.M. – Cuyahoga,” YouTube.com, Posted by Micheleland.

________________________






“Power in the Pen”
Silent Spring: 1962

     In three successive issues of The New Yorker magazine in June of 1962, a series of  articles under the title “Silent Spring” began appearing.  The covers of those New Yorker editions — June 16th, 23rd and 30th,  and one story page — are shown at right.  The articles were written by “reporter at large” Rachel Carson, a scientist and published author.  Carson by then had worked at the U.S. Department of the Interior and had written earlier best-selling nonfiction books on the biology of the sea and coastal environments – including the award-winning The Sea Around Us of 1951.  But the articles she offered in the New Yorker that June of 1962 were more hard-hitting than anything she had previously written.  This time, Rachel Carson was sounding an alarm and delivering a critique. 

     Her articles offered disturbing accounts of how synthetic chemical pesticides – then used widely in agriculture and sprayed elsewhere for insect control – had become, in her words, “elixirs of death,” contaminating the environment, killing wildlife,  and threatening human health.  Carson’s articles were excerpted from a forthcoming book, also called Silent Spring; a book that would have a profound impact on society, environmental science, and public understanding of the natural world.  Within one month of The New Yorker series, Carson and her book were making news and creating an uproar in the chemical industry.  On July 22nd, 1962 a front-page New York Times story on the book used the headlines: “Silent Spring is Now a Noisy Summer; Pesticide Industry Up in Arms Over New Book; Rachel Carson Stirs Conflict – Producers Cry ‘Foul’.”  The book itself, however, had yet to be released, with a publication date set for late September 1962.

Rachel Carson shown here in a 1950s photograph alongside the cover of her landmark 1962 book, “Silent Spring.”
Rachel Carson shown here in a 1950s photograph alongside the cover of her landmark 1962 book, “Silent Spring.”
     Silent Spring targeted the dangers of chemical pesticides but it was also a masterful story about the natural world.  In some ways, it was one of the first books on ecology to permeate popular culture.  Though it was an indictment of chemical abuse, it also told the story of the web of life and the nuances of biology and life-sustaining ecological systems.  Chemical pesticides had intruded on these systems, and according to Carson, upset “the balance of nature.”  She would show how that was happening, why it should be halted in some cases, and how other alternatives might offer better solutions.  At the very least, Carson would argue, much more oversight and “look-before-we-leap” caution were in order.  She and her book took on some very powerful interests, as the chemical industry, for one, was then at the center of economic growth; a popular and positive force in society, making all manner of new, chemically-derived goods – from plastics to pharmaceuticals – providing “the good life” and feeding the world.  But Carson was not only railing at the chemical industry; her critique also shook up establishment science and much of agriculture as well.  Still, despite these formidable bastions of the status quo, Carson and her book would set in motion forces that helped broaden society’s perspective on new technology, while laying the groundwork and popular support for modern-day environmentalism and environmental protection.

     What follows here – in this 50th anniversary year of Silent Spring’s publication – is a partial recounting of the book’s history, including pressures brought to bear on author and publisher, how society received Silent Spring, and how it helped change thinking and advance public understanding of ecology.  First, some background on Rachel Carson – an unlikely and reluctant crusader – and how she came to the pesticide issue.


Rachel Carson

1929: College graduate Rachel Carson aboard boat at Woods Hole Biological Laboratory, Massachusetts.
1929: College graduate Rachel Carson aboard boat at Woods Hole Biological Laboratory, Massachusetts.
     Rachel Carson was born in western Pennsylvania in May 1907.  The youngest of three children, Carson had a rugged upbringing in a simple farmhouse near the Allegheny River town of Springdale, northeast of Pittsburgh.  As a young girl, she spent time in the outdoors of rural Pennsylvania encouraged by her mother.   She had also spent time by the sea during summer visits to the coast of Maine.  And as her biographer Linda Lear reports, Carson once found a fossil shell while digging in the hills above the Allegheny River which made her curious about the creatures of the oceans that had once covered the area.  But Lear also notes that the town of Springdale was sandwiched between two huge coal-fired electric plants, leaving the area as something of a grimy wasteland, its air and water fouled by industrial pollution.  According to Lear, Carson once observed “that the captains of industry took no notice of the defilement of her hometown and no responsibility for it” – a perspective Carson would carry into her later years.

Early 1930s: Rachel Carson photo from Johns Hopkins University.
Early 1930s: Rachel Carson photo from Johns Hopkins University.
     After Carson graduated from Parnassus High School, she enrolled in the Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh, now Chatham College.  It had been her plan to become a writer, starting out in English composition.  But biology had always fascinated her and in her junior year, she switched to that field.  Following college graduation, Carson spent six weeks in the summer of 1929 at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, becoming a novice investigator in zoology.

     That fall, she began graduate study at Johns Hopkins University, where she would also teach for a time, returning to Woods Hole in subsequent summers.  By1931 she worked in zoology at the University of Maryland, remaining there for five years.  She completed her Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins in 1932 then did some post-graduate work at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.

1941: First edition of Rachel Carson’s “Under The Sea Wind,” published by Simon & Schuster.
1941: First edition of Rachel Carson’s “Under The Sea Wind,” published by Simon & Schuster.
     Carson wanted to continue her study and pursue a Ph.D, but there was little money available to her during the Depression and family responsibilities also called, as her father and sister died, leaving her to help support her mother and two school-aged nieces.  She was hired part-time by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in Baltimore to write radio scripts during the Depression and supplemented her income writing articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun and the Atlantic Monthly

     By 1936 at the age of 29, she had become a junior aquatic biologist at the Fisheries Bureau, only the second woman to be hired by the Bureau for a full-time, professional position.

     Writing became a part of what Carson did in her job at the Fisheries Bureau and also for outside publications.  In September 1937 she published an article entitled, “Undersea,” in The Atlantic Monthly magazine.  This led to her first book in 1941, Under the Sea-Wind, described by Carson as a series of descriptive narratives building in sequence on the life of the shore, the open ocean, and the sea bottom.  The book featured the sanderling, a common sea bird, facing the rhythms of nature and an arduous migration.  The book was published by Simon and Schuster.  However, arriving in bookstores the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, it received little notice.  Back at the Fisheries Bureau, meanwhile, she rose to chief editor of publications in 1949.

Rachel Carson, 1944, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.
Rachel Carson, 1944, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.
     During the late 1940s, in her quest to learn more about the sea, she sought to be taken on a trip aboard the Albatross III, a Fisheries Bureau research vessel at Woods Hole.  Her request was denied as women then were not allowed on research ships. 

     She then contacted the Fisheries Bureau director in Washington and in 1949 was granted permission for a ten-day cruise in the rough waters of the George’s Bank off coastal Maine.  That cruise helped Carson in writing what would become her second book, The Sea Around Us.  Meanwhile, in 1950, Carson had something of a personal scare as a confirmed breast tumor was found and removed, with no further treatment then called for.

     Carson continued to work on her new book about the sea.  However, getting to the final product wasn’t easy.  A proposed article from the book’s research was rejected by numerous magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic.

1951: Rachel’s Carson’s “The Sea Around Us” became her first bestseller, winning several book awards.
1951: Rachel’s Carson’s “The Sea Around Us” became her first bestseller, winning several book awards.
     Carson’s work on this book eventually came to William Shawn at The New Yorker, who saw its quality and decided to run much of it as a serial in 1951 under the title, “A Profile of the Sea.”  The full book was published in July 1951 as The Sea Around Us.  It soon reached the national bestsellers list for non-fiction that September, remaining on the list for 86 weeks, 39 of them at No. 1.  By December 1951 the book was selling more than 4,000 copies a day.  Carson had shown herself to be a writer of some considerable talent, able to take dry scientific material and turn it into interesting reading suitable for the general public.  The Sea Around Us was also excerpted in Reader’s Digest.  The book sold over 250,000 copies in 1951 and received numerous awards, among them: the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society, the John Burroughs Medal, the Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, and the National Book Award.  Eventually, this book would be published in 30 languages.

     “If there is poetry in my book about the sea,” she wrote upon receiving the National Book Award, “it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”  A film version of The Sea Around Us was also produced as a documentary in 1953, which won the Oscar award that year for Best Documentary.  Carson, however, was not happy with the result and would never sell film rights to her work again.

1951: Rachel Carson, Woods Hole dock at Sam Cahoon's Fish Market, just after  publication of “The Sea Around Us.” Photo E. Gray, Lear Collection.
1951: Rachel Carson, Woods Hole dock at Sam Cahoon's Fish Market, just after publication of “The Sea Around Us.” Photo E. Gray, Lear Collection.
     During July and August of 1951, while on leave from the Bureau of Fisheries, Carson retreated to Woods Hole where she would respond to the queries she was receiving about her popular book, but also to do some research at Woods Hole that would later appear in her third book, The Edge of the Sea.  By 1952, she left her position at the Bureau of Fisheries, spending time at Southport Island, Maine and Woods Hole, investigating the beach, tide pools and coastal ecology there for The Edge of the Sea.  She returned to Woods Hole in summer 1952 to continue research and also bought land and built a cottage on the Sheepscot River near West Southport on the coast of Maine, where she and her mother had visited years earlier.

1955: "The Edge of the Sea."
1955: "The Edge of the Sea."
     Meanwhile, in 1953, her earlier book, Under the Sea-Wind, was republished and also became a bestseller.  Her third and final book on the sea and sea coast, The Edge of Sea, was excerpted in The New Yorker and published in 1955.  On the home front at this time, Carson continued to raise her adopted niece and provide care to her elderly mother. She also later adopted her five year-old grandnephew Roger Christie, son of her niece, Marjorie Christie who had died in 1957.  Carson moved to Silver Spring, Maryland that year to begin raising Roger, and would share summers with him exploring the rocky coast of Maine.  These outings figured in a 1956 magazine article, titled “Help Your Child to Wonder,” later expanded and published as a book.  But by the late 1950s, Rachel Carson was being pulled into something of a new calling.  She and other scientists became worried by what they were learning about synthetic chemicals used throughout the environment.

“Go-Go Chemistry”
1940s-1950s

1955: "Synthetics...why they spell a better life for you." - Union Carbide.
1955: "Synthetics...why they spell a better life for you." - Union Carbide.
     Following World War II, “Better Living Through Chemistry” became one of the touchstone phrases and advertising slogans that told of a beneficent new chemistry that was making life better.  Numerous chemical and oil companies – Mobil, Dow, DuPont, Stauffer, Shell, American Cyanamid, Union Carbide, and others – were all enthusiastically engaged in the new chemical cornucopia.

     The 1955 magazine ad at right – one of a number of Union Carbide’s  “giant hand” ads from that era – touts the benefits of “synthetics” in building the good life.  In July 1950, during a Dow Chemical Company open house for the media, the Detroit Free Press gave a gushing review of Dow’s “hidden house of wonders,” describing an amazingly inventive company turning out all manner of products for America’s every need:  “The clothes you are wearing, the ice cream you had for lunch, your wife’s permanent wave, the pharmaceuticals in your medicine chest, your children’s toys and your automobile all most likely have ingredients in them which came from Dow.”  Indeed, by 1958, Dow was the fourth largest chemical company in the U.S., turning out an array of several hundred chemical and plastic products.

June 1947 Dow Chemical ad for “Dow DDT.”
June 1947 Dow Chemical ad for “Dow DDT.”
     Chemical pesticides produced by Dow and other companies were among the “wonder” products helping subdue insects and weeds, raise farm productivity, and increase food production for a hungry world.  One of the first popularly known pesticides was DDT, an insecticide invented by the Swiss in 1939.  DDT was used with much success in combating a typhus epidemic in Italy in 1943, as well as by the U.S. Army in fighting mosquitoes and malaria in the Pacific during WWII.  By late 1944, DDT was receiving rave reviews in advance of its first domestic applications.  By 1945, chemical companies were also selling herbicides such as 2,4-D, first sold to home gardeners, then to farmers, ranchers, utility companies, and railroads.  Pesticide advertising and government brochures helped spread the word.  One DDT ad from Dow Chemical Company in 1947 announced: “Freed From Flies, Stock Thrives—Most Pests Surrender to Dow DDT.” By the spring of 1948, some chemical companies were also selling another war research herbicide known as 2,4,5-T.  Beyond the farm, DDT and other pesticides sprays were used to fight mosquitos and any number of other pests, some sprayed aerially or by trucks moving through residential communities.

Cover of a March 1947 brochure on DDT from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Cover of a March 1947 brochure on DDT from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
     Throughout industry and government in the post WWII era there was a confident certainty about the efficacy and beneficence of the new products flowing from modern chemistry; little attention was paid to the possibility of any problems.  Some observers of that period, such as Cathy Trost, author of Elements of Risk, say the cavalier approach to new products was just part of the culture, the generally-accepted industrial and social creed of the times:

…There was little room in the 1950s for the advocates of the slow, thoughtful approach in any portion of life—business, science, or politics.  The country was so firmly in control of itself and had tied technology so tightly to patriotism that to be skeptical, to be Robert Oppenheimer working to “retard” the hydrogen bomb program or an “alarmist” scientist warning of potential dangers of radioactive fallout, was to be a traitor.  Nationwide publicity linking cigarettes to heart disease for the first time in 1954 was countered by advertisements that pointed out reassuringly that “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette.”  “The deadliest sin was to be controversial,” observed William Manchester in describing a generation that wanted “the good, sensible life” and that was “proud to be conservative, prosperous, conformist and vigilant defenders of the American way of life.”  The largest group of college undergraduates were business majors, and industry leaders were lionized (General Motors president Harlow Curtice was Time’s Man of the Year in 1956).  A free market, left to its own devices, was thought to be the most efficient path to productivity.  In 1957 the Soviets simultaneously launched Sputnik 1 and the space race by taunting Americans with the specter of Russian superiority.  Obeisance to technocracy took on patriotic as well as religious overtones.

     It was generally in the context of this world view that Rachel Carson stepped forward with her research on pesticides and what effect these chemicals were having on the natural world.


1945: Rachel Carson looking for raptors at Hawk Mountain, Berks County, Pennsylvania.
1945: Rachel Carson looking for raptors at Hawk Mountain, Berks County, Pennsylvania.
Reluctant Crusader

     Rachel Carson did not set out to write a book about pesticides or do battle with the chemical industry.  Rather, events of that era had drawn her into the fight, both professionally as a scientist and personally as a lover of the natural world.  In her marine studies with the Bureau of Fisheries, she had begun to gather data on the effects of DDT and other pesticides on marine life.  Since abnormalities often show up first in fish and wildlife, biologists were among the first to see the ill effects of chemicals in the environment.  Carson had also learned about  various predator and pest control programs that were freely spreading pesticides in the environment with little regard for consequences beyond the target pest.  In one of her earliest forays on the chemical issue, Carson had proposed an article to Reader’s Digest on evidence about DDT’s environmental damage, but the magazine turned her down.  Carson at the time was still focused primarily on the ocean and costal environments, and writing her books on those topics.

National wildlife artist Bob Hines and Rachel Carson search out marine specimens in the Florida Keys around 1955. The two spent time in the field for the USFWS visiting Atlantic coast refuges gathering material for agency publications. Hines’ drawings also appear in “The Edge of the Sea.”
National wildlife artist Bob Hines and Rachel Carson search out marine specimens in the Florida Keys around 1955. The two spent time in the field for the USFWS visiting Atlantic coast refuges gathering material for agency publications. Hines’ drawings also appear in “The Edge of the Sea.”
     By January 1958, however, Carson’s friend, Olga Huckins, sent her a copy of a letter she’d written to to the Boston Herald, complaining about DDT spraying and that many birds had died on her private, two-acre bird sanctuary in southeastern Massachusetts.  There had been aerial spraying of pesticides in that area to kill mosquitoes in December 1957 and Huckins hoped that Carson would be able to find someone in Washington who could help stop further spraying.  The following month, in February 1958 Carson wrote to New Yorker editor E.B. White suggesting that he write an article about the dangers of pesticides.  He, in turn, suggested that Carson write the article.  “I think this whole vast subject of pollution, of which this gypsy moth business is just a small part, if of the utmost interest and concern to everybody,” White said in his reply to Carson.  “It starts in the kitchen and extends to Jupiter and Mars.  Always some special group or interest is represented, never the earth itself.”

     With that, Carson then huddled with Paul Brooks, her editor at Houghton Mifflin and then, William Shawn at The New Yorker.  She agreed to start work on what might be a magazine piece and possibly something suitable for a chapter in a book on the same subject.  That was all she had in mind at the time.  She then set out to complete the work by the summer of 1958.

1951: DDT headlines in the “Dallas Morning News” reporting on a Texas scientist testifying in Congress.
1951: DDT headlines in the “Dallas Morning News” reporting on a Texas scientist testifying in Congress.
     Rachel Carson wasn’t the only scientist concerned about the effects of pesticides on the environment.  Others had also raised red flags about DDT, some from its earliest days of use.  Among those first concerned was Edwin Teale, who wrote in March 1945: “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy.  Ninety percent of all insects are good, and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.”  In 1948, the American Medical Association warned that chronic toxicity to humans of most new pesticides , including DDT, was “entirely unexplored.”  But such warnings rarely surfaced outside scientific circles.  Congress, too, had held hearings on the safety of food additives in 1950 and 1951, during which DDT residues in food became a concern, resulting in some new registration and testing requirements for chemicals.  But DDT and other pesticides continued to be used in any case.

Aerial pesticide spraying over livestock, 1950s.
Aerial pesticide spraying over livestock, 1950s.
DDT spraying, beach area, in the 1950s.
DDT spraying, beach area, in the 1950s.

     In 1957, landowners on Long Island, New York – including Robert Cushman Murphy, a retired ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and Archibald Roosevelt, a son of former President Teddy Roosevelt – had brought a lawsuit to stop the spraying of DDT to kill gypsy moths in their area.  Their lawsuit had some success, but the case went all the way to the Supreme Court which refused to hear it, although Justice William O. Douglas dissented in that decision, feeling the alarms that had been raised by experts warranted the court’s taking the case. 

     Rachel Carson had followed the proceedings of this case and was the beneficiary of a windfall of documents and scientific contacts that resulted.  She was also following the Department of Agriculture’s “fire ant eradication program” which began in 1957 and used two potent insecticides, dieldrin and heptachlor, in a spraying campaign that wildlife experts would later call a fiasco. 

     Carson had also written a letter to the editor, published in the spring of 1959 in The Washington Post, that attributed a recent decline in bird populations—she called it the “silencing of birds”—to pesticide overuse.  In late 1959, a great national furor also arose after cranberries were found to contain high levels of the herbicide aminotriazole, as the sale of all cranberry products was halted.  Carson attended the ensuing FDA hearings and came away dismayed by the testimony and tactics of the chemical industry – which contradicted the scientific data she was finding.

     “The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became,” Carson later wrote. “I realized that here was the material for a book.  What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important.”  Carson corresponded and met with other scientists who were documenting the environmental effects of pesticides in their own fields.  Her connections with government scientists sometimes yielded confidential information.  She also went into the federal agencies and national research libraries to do her digging, such as the Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, and letter writing to other scientists as well.

July 1961: Rachel Carson seaside, examining specimen in jar.  Life photo, A. Eisenstaedt.
July 1961: Rachel Carson seaside, examining specimen in jar. Life photo, A. Eisenstaedt.
     Carson became the right messenger at the right time, and one who could see the larger picture unfolding in many different corners of the environment, and knew how that story could be told, using the scientific information she could access and compile.  She carefully sourced her work, as she and her editor fully expected the book would get close scrutiny by scientists and critics.  She had scientists review her chapters as she went.  In May 1962, before The New Yorker series ran, Carson attended the White House Conference on Conservation where Houghton Mifflin distributed proof copies to selected delegates.  Carson had also sent a proof copy to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who had recently argued against the court’s refusal to hear the Long Island DDT spraying case.

     Carson was a careful writer and would later explain that writing was hard work for her, sometimes working in long with difficult material before it was typewritten.  By March 1960 a good portion of her book was finished in rough form, but that’s when she had a medical set back.  An earlier breast tumor had actually been malignant, leading to a mastectomy in April 1960.  Carson, in fact, was plagued by recurring personal illnesses, including arthritis, an ulcer, staphylococcus infections, and a continuing battle with cancer.  Still, even as she battled these medical problems, with setbacks in her writing, she persevered through early 1962, working toward completion of the book.  After consultation with her editor and agent, she settled on a title for the book – which earlier had been “The Control of Nature,” later changed to “Man Against the Earth,” and then changed again to something else.  Paul Brooks, her editor at Houghton Mifflin, suggested using “Silent Spring, ” which he had proposed initially for the book’s chapter on birds.  But “Silent Spring” suited the overall theme Carson was trying to get at, with chemicals not only “silencing spring” but also throwing the “balance of nature” out of kilter.

     In early June 1962, the first of Carson’s articles appeared in The New Yorker magazine.

 

Initial Reaction

July 1962: New York Times front-page story and headlines on Rachel Carson’s then-forthcoming book, “Silent Spring.”
July 1962: New York Times front-page story and headlines on Rachel Carson’s then-forthcoming book, “Silent Spring.”
     Among the earliest reactions to Carson’s Silent Spring as it appeared in the New Yorker, and prior to the full book’s publication, was the front-page story that ran in the New York Times on July 22, 1962.  “The $300,000,000 pesticides industry has been highly irritated by a quiet woman author…,” began that story, which proceeded to report how that industry and the agricultural establishment were “up in arms” over what Carson had to say about their chemicals.

     P. Rothberg, president of the Montrose Chemical Corporation of California, an affiliate of the Stauffer Chemical Company and then the nation’s largest producer of DDT, was quoted in the New York Times saying that Carson wrote not “as a scientist but rather as a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”  Carson’s New Yorker series had caught the attention of Chemical Week, one of the industry’s trade magazines, as soon as those pieces appeared.  On July 14th, 1962, that magazine ran an editorial noting that Carson’s articles could not be dismissed as a “the work of a crank,” but that her technique was “more reminiscent of a lawyer preparing a brief…than of a scientist conducting an investigation.”  Some chemical companies had assigned staff to reading the New Yorker articles line-by-line to find possible flaws.  But one company, Velsicol Chemical Corporation, went straight to the ramparts.

Velsicol Chemical sent a letter to “Silent Spring’s” publisher.
Velsicol Chemical sent a letter to “Silent Spring’s” publisher.
     Louis A. McLean, the company’s secretary and general counsel, wrote to Carson’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, suggesting they may want to reconsider the book’s publication, then scheduled for the end of September.  Velsicol’s five-page registered letter arrived at Houghton Mifflin on August 2, 1962 and noted, in particular, the book’s “inaccurate and disparaging statements” about two pesticides – chlordane and heptachlor – then solely manufactured by Velsicol.  Houghton Mifflin then decided to have the book reviewed by an independent toxicologist on the points raised by Velsicol.  The reviewing toxicologist found Carson’s statements accurate.  The publisher then informed Velsicol that the book would be published as planned.

     Meanwhile, other reaction to the Silent Spring stories in The New Yorker had been positive.  In Washington, Congressman John Lindsay (later to become mayor of New York and a presidential candidate), wrote to Carson telling her he found The New Yorker pieces to be “a persuasive contribution to public awareness of the dangers of our present pest control policy.”  Lindsay inserted a portion of the one of the New Yorker articles into the Congressional Record.

President John F. Kennedy, shown here at an earlier January 15, 1962 press conference, did acknowledge Carson’s book at a later press conference, August 29, 1962.
President John F. Kennedy, shown here at an earlier January 15, 1962 press conference, did acknowledge Carson’s book at a later press conference, August 29, 1962.
     President John F. Kennedy, known to be a reader of The New Yorker, was questioned by a reporter during an August 29, 1962 press conference. In his question, the reporter noted: “there appears to be a growing concern among scientists as to the possibility of dangerous long-term side effects from the use of DDT and other pesticides.  Have you considered asking the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to take a closer look at this?”  Kennedy answered, “Yes, and I know they already are.  I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the matter.”  A few days later, a special panel of experts was set up to see whether government agencies were doing all they could to reduce or eliminate human and wildlife dangers of pesticide programs.

     Also in late August 1962, the CBS television network announced that it was planning to run a show on the book the following year for its “CBS Reports” documentary news show.  Newspaper and magazine stories had also appeared reacting to The New Yorker series.  In Business Week magazine, a September 8th story used the title, “Are We Poisoning Ourselves?”  In Atlantic City, New Jersey, at a September 12th gathering of chemical industry officials and government scientists, Dr. C. Glen King, head of the Nutrition Foundation, charged that “one-sided” books like Silent Spring was whipping up public sentiment “bordering on hysteria.”  Silent Spring, meanwhile, had yet to reach the book stores.

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Method & Message
Book and Author

     Rachel Carson began Silent Spring with a short two-page “Fable for Tomorrow,” describing a fictional pastoral place of productive farm fields, fish-filled streams, and abundant wildlife.  But this bucolic scene is suddenly and mysteriously transformed into a desolate place, as Carson describes:

“…There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings…  Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change…  There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults, but even among children…  There was a strange stillness…  The birds for example – where had they gone?…  On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched…  Anglers no longer visited [the streams], for all the fish had died…  [A] white granular power still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon…the fields and streams…”

“Elixirs of Death”
Chapter 3

     “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.  In the less than two decades of their use, the synthetic pesticides have been so thoroughly distributed throughout the animate and inanimate world that they occur virtually everywhere.  They have been recovered from most of the major river systems and even from streams of groundwater flowing unseen through the earth. Residues of these chemicals linger in soil to which they have been applied a dozen years before.  They have entered and lodged in the bodies of fish, birds, reptiles, and domestic and wild animals so universally that scientists carrying on animal experiments find it almost impossible to locate subjects free from such contamination.  They have been found in fish in remote mountain lakes, in earthworms burrowing in the soil, in the eggs of birds — and in man himself. For these chemicals are not stored in the bodies of the bast majority of human beings, regardless of age. they occur in mother’s milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child…”
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Excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 2 in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962.

     This description, Carson told her readers, was indeed fictional, but the very damages described in the fable had actually occurred in separate instances all across America.  Carson then went about showing her readers, chapter-by-chapter, “what has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America.”  She proceeded to show how pesticides were taking their toll on air, land and water, birds and fish, farmers and farmworkers, and public health.  Her chapter titles pointed the way, and some did not mince words.  They included, for example: “Elixirs of Death”(excerpt at right), “Surface Waters and Underground Seas,” Realms of The Soil,” “Earth’s Green Mantle,” “Needless Havoc,” “And No Birds Sing,” Rivers of Death,” Indiscriminately From The Skies,” “The Human Price,” “The Rumblings of An Avalanche,” and more.

     She showed how insufficiently tested pesticides were being widely released into the environment, killing hundreds or even thousands of beneficial species; how the chemicals concentrated or “bio-magnified” through the food chain from plants and earthworms to birds, fish, and larger predators.  Carson also showed that the progression in chemical making had gone well beyond pesticidal substances made from minerals in earlier times, and were now man-made substances that were chemically synthesized in the laboratory, and that this might be a problem for the biological world and the human body:

…The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all of the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks; . . . they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in laboratories, and having no counterpart in nature. To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature’s; it would require not merely the years of a man’s life, but the life of generations.  And even this, were it by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone [Note: today it’s more like 1,000s annually].  The figure is staggering and its implications are not easily grasped—500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience…

     Still, Carson was careful to say early on in her book, and often repeated in later public appearances, “it is not my contention that chemical insecticides may never be used.  I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm…”

1962: Rachel Carson with microscope on porch at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland.
1962: Rachel Carson with microscope on porch at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland.
     The genius in Carson’s book – then and now – is that it mixed good science with good story-telling, using specific, real-world examples to make her points, some of which illustrated larger concepts, such as how food-chains and ecological systems work. 

     In Chapter 8 – “And No Birds Sing” – Carson included the story how DDT spraying of elm trees on the campus of Michigan State University in the mid-1950s to fight Dutch Elm disease was also killing a large number of robins.  That spraying was aimed at eradicating the bark beetle which spread Dutch Elm disease.  However, the trees’ DDT-coated leaves fell to earth, where they were eaten by earthworms who absorbed the DDT.  The worms in turn, were eaten by the robins, a number of which died of DDT poisoning. 

     Similarly, in Chapter 9 – “Rivers of Death” – Carson used the Miramachi River of New Brunswick Canada to show how a DDT spraying to protect balsam forests from the spruce budworm also killed the aquatic insects that young salmon fish in the river depended upon for food.  So then by Chapter 12 – “The Human Price” – she then describes the larger biological systems that society depends upon, she writes:

…For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan, or the salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence.  We poison the caddis flies in the stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. . . . We spray our elms and following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-robin cycle.  These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us.  They reflect the web of life-or death-that scientists know as ecology…

     All in all, Carson’s book was, and still is with few exceptions, a taut 260 pages of reporting with engaging stories, some from everyday people who were dealing with chemical problems in their communities to which Carson would add scientific information and/or further explanation.  Her book also had plenty of documentation, with more than 50 pages of mostly scientific citations to support her reporting.

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Publication & Reviews

Book-of-the-Month Club edition of “Silent Spring” included a “report” insert by Supreme Court justice, William O. Douglas.
Book-of-the-Month Club edition of “Silent Spring” included a “report” insert by Supreme Court justice, William O. Douglas.
     By the time Silent Spring was published in late September 1962, advanced sales had already reached 40,000 copies.  The New Yorker series also resulted in more than 50 newspaper editorials and numerous news accounts and other stories.  The book became an instant best-seller, and soon appeared on the New York Times’ bestseller list where it would remain for many weeks.

     Silent Spring had also been selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club for October 1962, which meant at least another 150,000 copies in sales.  Book-of-the-Month-Club selection also meant that Silent Spring would reach rural and Main Street America, an audience well beyond those who read The New Yorker.  The Book Club edition also included a special “report” from U.S. Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas introducing the volume.

     As Silent Spring arrived in book stores that fall, more news stories and book reviews appeared.  CBS television newsman, Eric Sevareid, who would later host and narrate a TV show on the book, published a piece in the Los Angeles Times on September 23rd entitled, “Pests vs. Men: The Big Battle Is Raging Again; Is Pesticide Use Tinkering With Nature Balance?” 

     Other publicity on the book included a positive editorial in The New York Times.  Excerpts of the book were also published in the National Audubon Society’s magazine, Audubon, as well as various newspapers and magazines. Her book was attacked as “biased,” “emotional” and “alarmist.” Others called it a hoax, science fiction, and in a league with “The Twilight Zone” TV show. Carson herself was labeled a communist, hysterical woman, a nature nut, and worse. A Chicago Daily News review stated: “…Silent Spring may well be one of the great and towering books of our time.  This book is must reading for every responsible citizen.”  But not all the reviews and publicity were glowing.

     In fact, critical reviews appeared in popular mainstream magazines of the day, including Time, Newsweek, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post.  One Time magazine review of September 28, 1962 deplored Carson’s “oversimplifications and downright errors…Many of the scary generalizations–and there are lots of them–are patently unsound.”  Another late September 1962 review by Edwin Diamond appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, stated: “Thanks to an emotional, alarmist book called ‘Silent Spring,’ Americans mistakenly believe their world is being poisoned.”  In Chemical & Engineering News of October 1, 1962, under the title, “Silence, Miss Carson,” Dr. William J. Darby, a nutritionist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, wrote: “Her ignorance or bias on some of the considerations throws doubt on her competence to judge policy.”  Darby suggested that the public could be misled by Carson’s book.  He also added at the end of his review: “The responsible scientist should read this book to understand the ignorance of those writing on the subject and the educational task which lies ahead.”

Monsanto’s “Desolate Year” insect plague story, was sent out to thousands of reviewers, editors and journalists to counter “Silent Spring.”
Monsanto’s “Desolate Year” insect plague story, was sent out to thousands of reviewers, editors and journalists to counter “Silent Spring.”
     Life magazine’s reviewer said of Carson and Silent Spring, “there is no doubt that she has overstated her case,” but also pointed out that the chemical manufacturers were just as one-sided in the other direction.  And while there were some instances where Carson had strayed or made a weak point or two, those who had carefully reviewed her work found these too little to quibble about, and did not detract from her larger purpose.  LaMont Cole, a professor of ecology at Cornell, wrote in Scientific American: “Errors of fact are so infrequent, trivial, and irrelevant to the main theme that it would be ungallant to dwell on them.”

     The chemical industry, meanwhile, had been planning their fight against Carson and book even before The New Yorker series had appeared, as word of the book had leaked out early on.  Through the summer and fall of 1962, the chemical industry continued its attacks on the book and Carson.  The National Agricultural Chemical Association (NACA) doubled its budget and distributed thousands of copies of negative book reviews for Silent Spring, and also issued warnings to newspaper and magazine editors that favorable reviews of the book could result in diminished advertising revenue.  NACA reportedly spent more than $250,000 in their campaign against the book.  The Monsanto Chemical Co. published a short story titled “The Desolate Year” – an answer to Carson’s “Fable for Tomorrow” chapter.  In the Monsanto version, the failure to use pesticides results in an insect plague that devastates America.  Five thousand copies of “The Desolate Year” were sent out to book reviewers, science and gardening writers, magazine editors, and farm journalists.  “This was, for us,” said one Monsanto man, “an opportunity to wield our public relations power.” 

Monsanto was one of the chemical companies to actively campaign against “Silent Spring.”
Monsanto was one of the chemical companies to actively campaign against “Silent Spring.”
     In November 1962, the Manufacturing Chemists Association began mailing out monthly feature stories to news media that stressed the positive side of pesticide use.  In 1963, The Nutrition Foundation, a trade group then comprised of 54 companies involved in food, chemical, and agriculture-related industries, began sending out Silent Spring “fact kits” that essentially contained materials, letters and book reviews that were critical of the book and/or Carson.  These kits went out to a wide array of colleges and universities, researchers, state agricultural experiment stations, the membership of the American Public Health Association, librarians, state and county public officials, and nursing and women’s organizations.

     In the chemical industry, a few scientists became especially visible in the attack on Silent Spring.  One scientist from American Cyanamid, Robert White-Stevens, stated: “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”  White-Stevens made 28 such speeches by the end of 1962, charging, among other things, that Silent Spring was “littered with crass assumptions and gross misrepresentations” and that Carson was “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”

     Another former Cyanamid chemist, Thomas Jukes, also became a critic of Carson and Silent Spring.  George C. Decker, an entomologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey and Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station who had been a frequent consultant to the chemical industry, called the book a “hoax” and “science fiction,” to be read, he said, “in the same way that the TV program ‘Twilight Zone’ is to be watched.”  Other attacks on Carson were more personal, questioning her character or her mental stability; some called her a communist, an hysterical woman, a nature nut, and more.

LaMont Cole of Cornell gave an important positive review of  "Silent Spring” in Scientific American magazine.
LaMont Cole of Cornell gave an important positive review of "Silent Spring” in Scientific American magazine.
     Throughout the onslaught, Carson remained steadfast and confident in her findings, though somewhat above the fray, choosing not to debate every last detractor, in part because she was then receiving treatments for her battle with cancer.  She did, however, take comfort in a series of positive reviews from nationally and internationally known scientists, including: Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania; LaMont C. Cole, professor of ecology at Cornell University; biologist Roland C. Clement of the National Audubon Society; and zoologist Robert L. Rudd of the University of California, among others.  And in the court of public opinion, Silent Spring appeared to be doing quite well.

      By year’s end 1962, and after less than three months on the market, Silent Spring had sold well over 100,000 copies and continued to appear on the New York Times’ bestsellers list, where it would remain for 31 weeks.  In addition, in state legislatures by that date more than 40 bills had been introduced aimed at governing the use of pesticides.  But the fight over pesticide policy in Washington, D.C. was just beginning. In 1963, Carson and Silent Spring would receive still more national attention and some important affirmation.


CBS Reports

Sample “CBS Reports” title card screenshot
Sample “CBS Reports” title card screenshot
     On April 3, 1963, the CBS television network ran a one-hour telecast on Rachel Carson and her book in its highly-regarded documentary series, “CBS Reports,” the news program made famous by Edward R. Murrow.  The title of that show was “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.”  Portions of the show with Carson on camera were filmed at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, with CBS newsman, Eric Sevaried as host.  But even before the program aired, a letter writing campaign, orchestrated by the chemical industry, was directed at CBS urging the network not to air the program.  When that failed, several advertising sponsors – Standard Brands, the makers of Lysol, and Ralston Purina, a major producer of livestock feeds– withdrew their advertising prior to the broadcast.  The show still went on the air in any case. 

Eric Sevareid, who became a notable newsman in his own right, hosted the April 1963 show on “Silent Spring.”
Eric Sevareid, who became a notable newsman in his own right, hosted the April 1963 show on “Silent Spring.”
     In the TV report, Sevareid offered some basics on the issue, noting the rise of the postwar pesticide industry and that each year by then some 900 million pounds of pesticides were being used.  Sevaried also read from newspaper and report excerpts and noted that Silent Spring had touched off a controversy:  “In Silent Spring Miss Carson stresses the possibility that pesticide chemicals may be working to harm man in ways yet undetected – perhaps contributing to cancer, leukemia, genetic damage.  In the absence of proof, her critics concede that these are possibilities but not probabilities and they accuse Miss Carson of alarmism.  Yet few scientists deny that some risk may be involved.”  Film footage included shots of planes applying pesticides to agricultural fields and kids walking along a street behind a mosquito-fogging truck.  During the program, an array of government officials appeared, including: Luther Terry, U.S. Surgeon General; George Larrick, Commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration; John Buckley, Director, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Research Center; Page Nicholson of the U.S. Public Health Service; Wayland Hayes, a toxicologist with the Public Health Service; and Arnold Laymond, Chief Toxicologist, Food & Drug Administration.  A number of the federal officials stated the chemicals were important and helped curb disease and save lives.  But some of the public officials seemed to confirm points made by Carson.  Dr. Page Nicholson, water pollution expert, Public Health Service, wasn’t able to answer how long pesticides persist in water or the extent to which pesticides contaminated groundwater supplies.

Rachel Carson being interviewed at her home by CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid.
Rachel Carson being interviewed at her home by CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid.
     Carson appeared several times, as in one scene shown at right with Sevareid in her study with shelves of books behind her.  At the time, Carson was undergoing radiation therapy and was in a weakened state.  Some may have noticed a change in her hair style, as during this filming, and other public appearances, she wore a wig due to her treatments.  But her message came across nonetheless.

     “It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks,” she said at one point.  “The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts….”  She further explained that “we still talk in terms of conquest.  We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe.”  Man’s attitude toward nature, she continued, “is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature…”

Rachel Carson on “CBS Reports,” 1963.
Rachel Carson on “CBS Reports,” 1963.
     During the show, Carson read selected passages from her book to illustrate how widespread pesticide use was on farms, forests, and home gardens; how the chemicals were “non-selective” in the damage they did, killing good and bad insects as well as birds and fish; and how some lingered in the environment for long periods.  “All this,” said Carson, “though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects.”  Carson emphasized that “the major barrage of chemicals being laid down on the earth” had unknown consequences.  “We have to remember that children born today are exposed to these chemicals from birth, perhaps even before birth,” she said during the interview.  “Now what is going to happen to them in adult life as a result of that exposure?  We simply don’t know.”

Robert White-Stephens of the American Cyanamid Co. as he appeared on “CBS Reports,” April 1963.
Robert White-Stephens of the American Cyanamid Co. as he appeared on “CBS Reports,” April 1963.
     Robert White-Stevens, the American Cyanamid scientist who had already been speaking on Silent Spring around the country, also appeared on camera during the “CBS Reports” show.  He was interviewed in a laboratory setting, in white lab coat surrounded by beakers and other lab equipment.  “When pesticides, registered pesticides, are used in accordance with label instructions and recommendations, then there is no danger to either man or to animals and wildlife,” he stated at one point.  Of Carson and her book he said: “The major claims in Miss Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, are gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence and general practical experience in the field.  If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the Earth.”  In the telecast, with Carson and White-Stevens cast as the primary focal points, Carson came across as the more rational messenger, and certainly not the “hysterical woman” she was portrayed to be by some of her critics.  The show was seen by 10-to-15 million TV viewers, and was especially important for those who had not read the book or had little knowledge of the pesticide issue.

White House report on pesticides of May 15, 1963 helps vindicate Rachel Carson.
White House report on pesticides of May 15, 1963 helps vindicate Rachel Carson.
     Several weeks later, on May 15, 1963, Carson and Silent Spring received further affirmation when the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) released a report entitled, “The Use of Pesticides.”  The PSAC report, which had been instigated in part by Silent Spring, and reportedly urged along by President Kennedy, was the result of eight months of wrangling by the government’s top scientists and regulators, who held a series of meetings with Carson, industry representatives, and Department of Agriculture officials. 

     The PSAC report concluded that while pesticides were scrutinized thoroughly for their agricultural effectiveness, they generally were not given the same level of review for environmental and public safety.  And for many pesticides in use, the PSAC report found there was little knowledge of chronic effects over a lifetime.  The report also acknowledged that “until publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides.”  The PSAC report recommended that pesticide residues be tracked and monitored in the environment – in air, water, soil, fish, wildlife, and humans.  Importantly, the report also stated that “elimination of the use of persistent toxic pesticides should be the goal.”“Until publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides.”
                  - PSAC Report, 1963.

     On the day following the report’s release, the headline in The Christian Science Monitor newspaper declared, “Rachel Carson Stands Vindicated!”  In that evening’s CBS news telecast, commentator Eric Sevareid referring to the report, said that Carson had succeeded in her stated goals, one of which was “to build a fire under the government.”  Dan Greenberg, writing for Science magazine, found the PSAC report to be a temperate document, carefully balanced in its assessments of risks versus benefits, but that it “adds up to a fairly thorough-going vindication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring thesis.…”  Greenberg added that “Carson can be legitimately charged with having exceeded the bounds of scientific knowledge for the purpose of achieving shock; but her principal point—that pesticides are being used in massive quantities with little regard for undesirable side effects—permeates the PSAC report and is the basis for a series of recommendations…”


Before Congress

June 1963: Rachel Carson testifying, U.S. Senate.
June 1963: Rachel Carson testifying, U.S. Senate.
     In June 1963, on two separate occasions, Carson testified before Senate committees holding hearings on the pesticide-related issues – once on June 3rd at Senator Ribicoff’s hearings before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee of Government Operations, and then three days later on June 6th before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce.

     In her appearances before the two committees, Carson generally called for establishment of a “pesticide commission” or some type of independent regulatory agency to protect people and the environment from chemical hazards.  In her testimony, Carson asserted that one of the most basic human rights was the “right of the citizen to be secure in his own home against the intrusion of poisons applied by other persons.”  In her appearance at Senator Ribbicoff’s hearings, Carson called for strict control of aerial pesticide spraying,  reduction and eventual elimination of the use of persistent pesticides, and more research devoted to non-chemical methods of pest control.

     Some of what Carson had to say before the Senate Commerce Committee on June 6th is offered below in rough transcription:

“…The most disturbing of all such reports however concerns the finding of DDT in the oil of fish that live far out at sea… Oil from some of these marine fish contains DDT in concentrations exceeding 300 parts per million… All this gives us reason to think deeply and seriously about the means by which these residues reach the places where we are now discovering them… No one can answer this question with complete assurance…Upper atmosphere may be carrying chemical particles and the pesticide contamination of such remote places may be the result of a new kind of fallout…. If we are ever to solve problem of contamination we must begin to count the many hidden costs of what we are doing…A strong and unremitting effort must be made to eliminate pesticides that leave residues…No other way to control rapidly spreading contamination…”

Rachel Carson, 1963 hearings.
Rachel Carson, 1963 hearings.
     Before both Senate committees, Carson acquitted herself with a high degree of professionalism, presenting her arguments carefully and rationally, demonstrating again that earlier charges of “hysteria” and being an “emotional woman” had no basis in fact.  Still, that did not stop some at those same hearings from leveling remarks at Carson.  Dr. Mitchell R. Zavon, a professor of Industrial Medicine at the University of Cincinnati, and a consultant for the Shell Oil Company, stated: “Miss Carson is talking about health effect that will take years to answer.  In the meantime, we’d have to cut off food to people around the world.  These peddlers of fear are going to feed on the famine of the world…”

     Carson’s appearances before the congressional committees were among her last in public.  In December 1963, she received some national recognition with her induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and she also received the National Audubon Society Medal. 

Paperback editions of “Silent Spring” sold through the 1960s
Paperback editions of “Silent Spring” sold through the 1960s
     By the close of 1963, the more vitriolic attacks on Silent Spring had begun to subside.  The book was now available in paperback editions, adding to its circulation.  However, in Carson’s personal life she was losing her battle with cancer.  On April 14, 1964, less than a year after she had testified before Congress, Rachel Carson died in Silver Spring, Maryland.  She was 56 years old.  Carson biographer, Linda Lear, has noted one poignant story about Carson in her final days:

…Shortly before her death, Sierra Club director David Brower played host to Carson in California, fulfilling a dream of hers to visit Muir Woods and see the Pacific Ocean.  Brower recalls that he took Carson down to the shore at Rodeo Lagoon where he first gave her several handfuls of Pacific beach sand which she examined minutely commenting on the different colored crystals.  Then as Brower pushed Carson in her wheelchair around a beach cove they came upon the biggest flock of brown pelicans he had ever seen.  The birds had only recently been near extermination.  Brower later said it was as if the pelicans were there that day to thank Carson…

     Carson’s funeral service was held in Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral and among her pallbearers were Stewart Udall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior and U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff.

     Only weeks before Carson’s death, the U.S. Public Health Service had announced that the periodic huge fish kills on the lower Mississippi River over the previous four years had been traced to toxic ingredients in three kinds of pesticides.  The chemicals had drained into the river from neighboring farm lands.  Yet even today, more than 50 years after Carson’s warnings, there is still abundant evidence of chemical toxicity in the environment and beyond.  In recent years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia has been tracking chemicals found in human blood and urine.  The Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, for example, issued in 2009, measured some 212 chemicals in humans, 75 of which CDC measured for the first time.


Rachel Carson’s Legacy

1961. Rachel Carson at the seashore. Life photo; A. Eisenstaedt.
1961. Rachel Carson at the seashore. Life photo; A. Eisenstaedt.
     In 1962, there was no “environmental movement” to speak of – at least not as that term came to be understood in more modern times.  There was, of course, and had been since the days of John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and others, a conservation movement.  And while conservation had its champions and feisty warriors, the primary focus was about conserving and managing natural resources, often for the purpose of sustaining industrial growth, as in sustained timber yields and soil conservation for agriculture.  Some of the latter efforts had grown out of the Dust Bowl era and New Deal programs of the 1930s.  Another wing of conservationists focused on parks and wildlife, setting aside special places for permanent protection.  But building popular concern for an environmental ethic and a broader defense against environmental and ecological threats – that was something quite new.  And it was Rachel Carson who helped lay the groundwork for that with Silent Spring.

     Although birds and wildlife were a prominent focus in Silent Spring, Carson made clear the connection between what happens in the environment and all of life – all the way to humans.  Moreover, Carson was the first to signal, in a popular way, a new kind of pollution, the unseen kind; the chemical toxicity that could infiltrate biology at the cellular and molecular levels, and along with it, bring cumulative and generational harms to birds, fishes and us.  Carson’s ecological tableaus showed that “we’re- all-in-this-together;” that the fate of beneficial insects was also our fate.  Silent Spring “set the table” as well for a new kind of thinking about the environment, so that soon-to-come major incidents such as the burning of the Cuyohaga River, the Santa Barbara oil spill, and recurring smog alerts would each add weight and galvanizing force to embedding a more permanent environmental ethic in society.  And by linking environmental and human health in her story, Carson helped elevate the political standing of environmental issues; she helped popularize and politicize environmentalism.

Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” helped create the EPA in 1970.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” helped create the EPA in 1970.
     Silent Spring produced tangible results, too.  Of the 12 pesticides mentioned in her book eight were eventually banned in the United States – DDT, chlordane, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, toxaphene, pentachlorophenal, and benzene hexachloride.  Two more remain severely restricted – heptachlor and lindane.  And one, parathion, is considered severely hazardous.  In the wake of Silent Spring, new environmental organizations were born as well.  In 1967 the Environmental Defense Fund took form following the Long Island fight against DDT and soon went national, bringing lawsuits to “establish a citizen’s right to a clean environment.”  And not least, in 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed, which not only established the White House level Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), but also required that all major federal actions that could affect the environment first conduct “look-before-you-build” environmental assessments – known as environmental impact statements.  By April 1970, the President’s Commission on Executive Reorganization issued a report recommending the establishment of an independent federal agency to deal with environmental matters.  A plan for that agency was submitted to Congress in July 1970, and by December that year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created.  Carson and Silent Spring were not the sole actors in all of this certainly, but they provided a critical and timely push.

Frank Graham’s “Since Silent Spring” was published in 1970.
Frank Graham’s “Since Silent Spring” was published in 1970.
     Numerous honors have since come to Rachel Carson, some beginning a few years following her death.  In Maine, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, consisting mostly of coastal salt marsh, was dedicated in 1970.  More journalists took up the pen for environmental causes as well, including some already established nature writers such as Frank Graham who didn’t want Carson’s hard work to go for naught.  Graham wrote Since Silent Spring in 1970, the first book to bring the story of how and why Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, as well as what had happened in those first eight years after the book’s publication. 

     In 1972, Paul Brooks, Carson’s editor at Houghton Mifflin published The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work.  In July 1973, CBS rebroadcast its 1962 CBS Reports TV show, “The Silent Spring Of Rachel Carson.”  By June 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded Rachel Carson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, inscribed in part: “…she created a tide of environmental consciousness that has not ebbed.”  The following year, a Rachel Carson postage stamp was issued in her honor, part of the Great Americans Series.

1981: Rachel Carson stamp.
1981: Rachel Carson stamp.
     As for Carson’s book, one year after its release, Silent Spring was published in 15 countries, and would also have an impact on pesticide oversight in those countries.  By October 1987, after being in print for 25 years, Silent Spring had sold some 165,000 hardback copies and 1.8 million paperbacks.  In 1991, Rachel Carson’s former residence in Silver Spring, Maryland, was named a National Historic Landmark, and today houses the Rachel Carson Council, a pesticide watchdog group. 

     A number of conservation areas, trails, schools, and landmarks have been named in Carson’s honor – a 650 acre conservation park in Montgomery County, Maryland; a bridge in Pittsburgh; an estuary in North Carolina; an elementary school in Sammamish, Washington; among others. 

     In 1993, the documentary “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,” was produced for the PBS American Experience series, with actress Meryl Streep narrating the voice of Carson. And through the 1990s, several books on Carson appeared, including Linda Lear’s 1997 biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature.

DVD cover for 1993 PBS TV special, “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,” in the American Experience series.
DVD cover for 1993 PBS TV special, “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,” in the American Experience series.
     In later editions of Silent Spring, prominent Americans and renowned scientists have added new commentary on the book and its history.  Former U.S. Vice President, Al Gore, wrote the introduction to the 1994 reissue of Silent Spring, and in 2002, eminent Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, Edward O. Wilson, wrote an afterward that included his expert observations on the fire ant problem, noting that Rachel Carson was right about that fiasco.

     Silent Spring, meanwhile, may never be out of print, and certainly in e-book form it will likely travel well into the future.  Print copies, nonetheless, continue to sell at a rate of about 20,000 or so a year.  The book has been included on a number of lists compiling the “100 most influential books of the 20th century,” and Carson has been named to various lists of “most influential people,”  including Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.”

     In 1993, when PBS ran its American Experience TV show on Rachel Carson, historian David McCollough’s introduction summed up Carson’s impact: “A single book changes history only rarely.  There was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed.  And then there was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. . . Rachel Carson changed our lives, changed the way we think about the world and our place in it.”

     For other stories at this website on publishing and culture, please see that category page or go to the Home Page for additional story choices.  Thanks for visiting.  – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 22 February 2012
Last Update: 22 February 2012
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Power in the Pen, Silent Spring: 1962,”
PopHistoryDig.com, Feburary 21, 2012.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Cover of Paul Brooks’ book, “Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work,”1998, formerly published as “The House of Life,” 1972.
Cover of Paul Brooks’ book, “Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work,”1998, formerly published as “The House of Life,” 1972.
1992-1994 edition of “Silent Spring” with introduction by then U.S. Vice President, Al Gore. Click to read introduction.
1992-1994 edition of “Silent Spring” with introduction by then U.S. Vice President, Al Gore. Click to read introduction.
Craig Waddell’s book of essays on Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring,’ with  foreword by Paul Brooks, Carson’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, and afterword by her biographer, Linda Lear. Published in 2000.
Craig Waddell’s book of essays on Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring,’ with foreword by Paul Brooks, Carson’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, and afterword by her biographer, Linda Lear. Published in 2000.
Paperback version of ‘Silent Spring’ published October  2002 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with introduction by Linda Lear and afterword by Edward O. Wilson. Click to read E.O. Wilson’s afterword.
Paperback version of ‘Silent Spring’ published October 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with introduction by Linda Lear and afterword by Edward O. Wilson. Click to read E.O. Wilson’s afterword.
Linda Lear’s 1997 biography, “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature,” published by Henry Holt & Co. Click to read Chapter 1.
Linda Lear’s 1997 biography, “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature,” published by Henry Holt & Co. Click to read Chapter 1.
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“Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge,” edited by Lisa H. Sideris and Kathleen Dean Moore, 2008.
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U.S. State Department's Bureau of Int'l Information Programs published "Rachel Carson: Pen Against Poison." Click to go there.
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