Cuyahoga – a river, a song, a city

R.E.M. is releasing a special edition of its breakthrough album “Lifes Rich Pageant” on July 12 to mark the 25th anniversary of that album. R.E.M. had already achieved status as darlings of rock critics and college radio, but this album, with its radio-friendly hit “Fall on Me” and a solid set of tracks, including my favorite, “Cuyahoga,” propelled R.E.M. into the mainstream. “Document” followed, and then came a big fat contract with Warner Bros. and superstardom.

The song “Cuyahoga” really resonated with me in 1986, when I was a college senior (sort of) and aspiring writer/photographer (again, sort of).

I grew up in Columbus, some 100 miles south of the Cuyahoga, but I knew the river’s story. And I saw firsthand how Columbus and vicinity treated the Olentangy and Scioto rivers (note the Native names) like sewers. When “Lifes Rich Pageant” came out, I was taking a photography class. One of my projects was to go through a 24-hour day’s cycle and photograph it. One of my stops was along the Scioto River. That song kept ringing through my head as I took the photo, not an especially good one, and developed and glued it to a board. It’s a mournful song; at least that’s how it came across to me, lamenting the way these once-pristine waterways had become putrid industrial cesspools that ran brown with filth. Before Europeans came and settled in the Northwest Territory, Natives lived in the ancient forests of Ohio, with no boundaries to speak of except the rivers and lakes and mountains. The land and water were revered as sacred beings.

Michael Stipe later confessed to mispronouncing the name “Cuyahoga,” a word of indeterminate Indian tribal language that is supposed to translate to “Crooked River.” It was a heartfelt ode to the river and to the Natives who used to live near and live on the bounty of the river, and a plaintive mourning for the shabby way modern America had treated the river to that date. (“This is where we walked, this is where we swam.”)

The river has made a remarkable recovery since 1986. That recovery is even more remarkable when you consider that only 17 years prior, that same river had caught fire because it was so grotesquely polluted with industrial filth. More improvements are needed, such as rebuilding the sewer system so that heavy rains don’t dump raw sewage into the river. Blowing up the old dams helps oxygenate the water. Then let nature take its course. The Crooked River is returning to life.

“This is where they walked, talked, hunted, danced and sang. Take a picture here. Take a souvenir. Cuyahoga.”

Cuyahoga Falls, taken from a pedestrian bridge near the gorge.

The photo above (and several others here) was made possible by the demolition of old industrial buildings along the river in Cuyahoga Falls. The restoration of a bridge at High Bridge Glens Park gave access to this part of the river, which had been hidden from view for years by the industrial buildings. A century before, this had been the site of an amusement park visited by William McKinley at one point.

In this “Unplugged” video, Stipe correctly pronounces the river (KIE-ya-HOE-ga). In the original recording he pronounced it “KOY-a-HOE-ga,” which I thought might have been closer to the original Native language. It sounds more lyrical. But I’m no linguist.

I believe this is actually Chippewa Creek in Brecksville, but it's certainly part of the Cuyahoga Valley.

At Brecksville Station. That's the Route 82 bridge in the background.

A fawn on the Bike and Hike Trail. The Cuyahoga River is just to the right of this frame. There is an abundance of deer and chipmunks all along these trails. I'm thinking a coyote or two would be a good thing. Food is plentiful.

The river occasionally floods.

A fork in the river. They didn't call this the crooked river for nothin'.

125 feet above the river. It just seems higher. Another of a multitude of crooks and bends along the Cuyahoga.

The mighty Cuyahoga.

Relatively clear water runs north of Peninsula.

Filthy geese. More food for the foxes and coyotes. Are you listening, Wile E. Coyote?

The water is still a little brown, but it's 10 times cleaner than before.

This heron got skittish when I stopped to take its picture.

This heron was too busy hunting to be bothered by me.

A moving river never freezes. In the background you can see an artificial dam. The rest of the way down is natural rock. Apparently the namesake Cuyahoga Falls were obscured by a concrete dam. That just seems unconscionable.

Check out that blue ice! It's refraction, I'm told. Same principal behind why the ocean looks blue.

This is not far from that 125-foot overlook. A lot closer to the river, of course. It runs clear here.

This dam used to be part of a mill, I believe. There were dams like these all along the Cuyahoga, which contributed to the decline of the water quality with stagnating pools of low-oxygen water. When they knocked out the Munroe Falls dam a few years ago, I noticed an almost immediate improvement. A year later I caught a smallmouth bass about a mile downstream.

From Songfacts

“Cuyahoga” is the name of the river in Northern Ohio that the city of Cleveland was built around. There were many tribes of Indians which used to live in the region (“This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang”), and they simply called the river the Crooked River due to its zig-zag nature and many U-shaped turns. “Cuyahoga” is an Indian word meaning “crooked.”
The lines, “This land is the land of ours, this river runs red over it,” “Underneath the river bed we burned the river down” and “Bury, burn the waste behind you” refer to how the once-pristine river became so polluted that it famously caught fire several times between 1929 and 1969. The last river fire in 1969 garnered much national attention, and helped expose the problems industrial waste was having on our environment. This helped spur the creation of the Clean Water Act as well as led to the formation of a new government agency, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). (thanks, James – Cleveland, OH, for above 2)
R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe explained in the November 12, 2009 issue ofRolling Stone: “It’s an Indian word I mispronounce in the song. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire in 1969 because of pollution dumped into it. The song addresses environmental devastation and our history with Native Americans, which isn’t pleasant.”

Green. This was shot with a Nikon Coolpix L1, early generation digital point-and-shoot. I think the lens was a little smudged, making that soft-focus effect movie makers use to keep older actors and actresses looking younger. They use Vaseline on lenses. Sometimes the soft focus has interesting results. This might be one such example. It looks kind of misty.

Side note: The Cuyahoga River ends at Lake Erie in Cleveland, and Cleveland’s water intake, the “crib,” is only a couple of miles offshore from the mouth of the Cuyahoga. There is a very real and serious interest in making the water in the Cuyahoga safe for sustaining life. Entire cities depend on it. At long last, we’re beginning to recognize that.

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