In the recent Earth Day commemorations, commentators mentioned the infamous 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, which although hardly the first time the chemically-polluted surface of that river in Cleveland caught fire, was strategically timed to dramatize environmental efforts building at that time toward the first Earth Day the next year.
West Chester had its own river fire and environmental 9/11 89 years ago. Goose Creek, which flows through the east side of West Chester on its way to the Delaware River, caught fire on September 11, 1931. According to research by Professor Jim Jones in 2006,
“A road paving company stored tar and other flammable materials in tanks near the creek at Union Street. One tank leaked, and some neighborhood boys accidentally set fire to the resulting oil slick near the Nields Street bridge. The fire spread upstream along the creek and burned down fences and sheds belonging to the houses on Franklin Street. The heat destroyed the Lacey Street bridge and the flames ignited the tanks at Union Street. The fire burned for three hours and closed down the railroad. No one was killed, but several were injured when the crowd of onlookers panicked and began to run.”
Daily Local News coverage of the fire compiled by Professor Jones (download it here) says, in the dramatic language of the period:
“Confronted by a roaring fury of flames and enveloped in billowing clouds of dense black smoke, fear-stricken householders, property owners and volunteer firemen from every end of town and every walk of life, battled into submission one of the most spectacular and dangerous fires in the history of the borough.”
Jim comments that “I was part of the annual Goose Creek cleanups for a lot of years. In the first year Goose Creek still seemed pretty dead, but I remember seeing our first fish a year or two later, and then seeing larger fish each year after that. At the same time, the amount of trash that we collected went down, leading to the formula ‘Trash weight down = fish weight up.'”
Yes, streams like Goose Creek are a lot cleaner now, thanks to initiatives begun in the 1960s and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) enacted on 1/1/70. Only continued efforts, in West Chester and elsewhere, to keep such programs viable will continue protecting environmental and human health and safety.