November 1, 1836: Birth of Hiram Mills; 1952: Cuyahoga River Catches Fire…Again

November 1, 1836Birth of Hiram Francis Mills.“Born in Bangor, Maine, in the year 1836 and receiving his early schooling there, the young Hiram Mills moved on to the newly-established Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute to be graduated before he was twenty. When he was in his middle thirties he was appointed Chief Engineer of the Essex Company, the corporate owner of the Merrimack River dam at Lawrence, Massachusetts. Ever research-minded, Mr. Mills induced the Essex Company to set up an outdoor laboratory on the riverbank below the power dam. Here was installed a long pipe of large diameter — stoutly supported and shed-covered — by means of which Mills proposed to carry out new and accurate measurements of water flow under varying structural conditions.

In the year 1886…he was appointed a member of the recently reorganized State Board of Health. At the first meeting he was chosen by his associates to be chairman of the Board’s Committee on Water Supplies and Sewage, and from hydraulics, Hiram Mills’ chief scientific concern in life turned to sanitation.

The law of 1886, re-creating the State Board of Health, empowered the members to investigate methods for the disposal of sewage, and Hiram Mills lost little time in seeing that the law’s intent was carried out. As the place for his projected studies in the best practical methods for safe sewage disposal, he persuaded the Essex Company to lend to Massachusetts — for a nominal rental — the experimental plant the company had created for his hydraulic researches. With State funds, a modest laboratory building was added to the existing structures, and the whole was renamed the Lawrence Experiment Station — the first research enterprise of its kind in our country.

It may fairly be said that the investigations which Mills was to plan and carry through to conclusion in this physically limited and always economically equipped plant laid the foundations for many of the scientific methods of treatment of municipal and industrial wastes. Instead of investing in elaborate equipment and costly facilities, Mills invested in brains, as frequently he was pleased to point out. To man his researches, Mr. Mills drew upon the faculty and recent graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and thus employing their varied scientific skills, he perfected a unique investigating team whose inventiveness and productiveness are not likely to be seen again.” (edited by MJM)

Members of the research team included George W. Fuller, Allen Hazen, William T. Sedgwick, and Thomas M. Drown.

Cuyahoga River designated “River of the Year”

November 1, 1952:Cuyahoga River catches fire.“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 again near the Great Lakes Towing Company’s shipyard, resulting in a five-alarm fire. (Many sources incorrectly put the date of the fire at November 3, 1952) The next morning’s Cleveland Plain Dealer led with a banner headline, ‘Oil Slick Fire Ruins Flats Shipyard.’ 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.”

Commentary: There was a long history of fires on the Cuyahoga—by one count a total of 13 with the first occurring in 1868. Other fires of note occurred in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, and 1948. A relatively minor fire on June 22, 1969 was reported nationwide and became part of the impetus for passing the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Commentary Update: In 2019, there have been several articles about how the Cuyahoga River has been dramatically cleaned up and is now considered an asset for the City of Cleveland. No doubt this is due in part to the 50thanniversary of the 1969 fire. Check out:  Cuyahoga Named River of the Year; Cleveland River Now a Hot Spot(groan).

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