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The Return of the Cuyahoga

For centuries, the Cuyahoga River has been on the frontier. When the United States was a new nation, the river literally marked the western frontier. But 'civilization' came to the river; by 1870 the river was on the industrial frontier. On the river's banks sprouted a multitude of factories, a booming display of what was called progress. The river, as it flowed through Cleveland, became a foul-smelling channel of sludge, with an oily surface that ignited with such regularity that river fires were treated as commonplace events by the local press.

But then, in 1969, the river burned again, just as a third kind of frontier swept across the nation: an environmental frontier. And the Cuyahoga River became a landmark on this frontier too -- a poster child for those trying to undo the destruction wrought by progress in America.

The Return of the Cuyahoga is a one-hour documentary about the death and rebirth of one of America's most emblematic waterways. In its history we see the end of the American frontier, the growth of industry, the scourge of pollution and the advent of a political movement that sought to end pollution.

The Cuyahoga's story is a particularly apt example for future environmental efforts, because the once burning river can't just be cleaned up and 'set aside' as a pristine wilderness park - it runs right through Cleveland, and like most American rivers, the Cuyahoga has to serve widely varying needs - aesthetic and economic, practical and natural, human and animal. The challenge: how to maintain industrial uses of the river near Lake Erie, encourage recreation and entertainment, and yet preserve the nature in and around the river. It's the same challenge that much of our riparian nation is facing today.

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