A Vintage View

Recalling the first Earth Day in Philly 54 years ago

by Len Lear
Posted 4/18/24

On April 22, 1970, my wife and I were among the crowd of about 30,000 who gathered on Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park -- the first Earth Day.

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A Vintage View

Recalling the first Earth Day in Philly 54 years ago


On April 22, 1970, my wife and I were among the crowd of about 30,000 who gathered on Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park. The event had the look and feel of Woodstock, which we had attended eight months earlier, with its rock bands, the smell of marijuana, young people dancing with abandon, playing kazoos and DIY “instruments” and cheering anti-establishment sentiments from speakers on stage.

It was the nation's first Earth Day, organized by University of Pennsylvania students and faculty, and the culmination of a week of activities to promote environmental activism. 

It was one of about 12,000 similar crowds to gather that day for a nationwide event that attracted 20 million people across the U.S. They voiced concerns about issues such as air pollution and toxic waste – a protest that led to the creation of both the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. It is still considered the largest day of protest in the nation's history. 

The “host” who did most of the speaking was Ira Einhorn, an environmental activist and “Philadelphia’s head hippie,” who was often in the news during the 1960s and '70s. (I knew Ira at Central High School, where he was a brilliant student – which he would not let you forget – and played basketball with him at Upsal Playground in East Mt. Airy, where he lived.)

To a blizzard of applause, Einhorn claimed to have helped found Earth Day, although numerous press outlets later revealed that Einhorn was not the founder. That honor belonged to Gaylord Nelson, a former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Senator who sought to bring national awareness to the fact that, at the time, there were almost no legal or regulatory mechanisms to protect the environment. (Einhorn was convicted in October of 2022 of murdering his girlfriend, Holly Maddux, a Bryn Mawr College graduate, in 1977. He died in prison on April 3, 2020, of natural causes at age 79.)

Some of the musicians that day were Great Speckled Bird, a Canadian rock band, the cast of “Hair,” the first Broadway show featuring nude actors; and Redbone, a Native American rock band. To raucous applause, the cast of “Hair” sang “Let the Sunshine In,” “Welcome, Sulfur Dioxide; Hello, Carbon Monoxide” and “To keep us underfoot, they bury us in soot, pretending it’s a chore to ship us off to war.” 

Also speaking were consumer advocate Ralph Nader, U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, who introduced the Clean Air Act of 1970, and “Beat” poet Allen Ginsberg. His epic poem “Howl,” about rebellion against materialism, hypocrisy and mainstream American conformity was a must-read for college students at the time and influenced Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and so many others. (Meeting Ginsberg was a major thrill for me.) 

“No major American river is clean anymore,” said Muskie, who had championed pollution control starting in the early 1960s as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution. “No American lake is free of pollution. No American city can boast of clean air.” 

Speaker after speaker pointed out that Philadelphia (some called it “Filthydelphia”) air suffered from countless tons of soot, smoke, ash, hydrocarbons and fumes, thanks to the oil refineries, automobile exhaust, city incinerators, chemical plants, coke ovens and smelting operations. And the city's water, which featured noxious waste in the Schuylkill River, did not fare much better.

Unlike Woodstock, where tons of trash littered the landscape, “Those thousands of people at Belmont Plateau didn’t leave a bit of rubbish. They picked up every speck,” said Ian McHarg, founder of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, who also spoke to the crowd.

Edward Furia, a lawyer and Penn graduate, praised Chestnut Hill resident Thatcher Longstreth, a long-time member of City Council. Furia said in a later interview that Longstreth, a Republican, became a “key performer (in pushing environmental legislation). He got in tremendous hot water in City Council, but Thach really knocked heads; he told them he felt this was an issue that would have enormous impact on the business community and that it had to be dealt with.”

According to Anne K. Berg, a current assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, on the day before Earth Day, a huge crowd gathered at Independence Hall to hear Professor McHarg read a “Declaration of Interdependence” as a prelude to the big event. And on the day itself, about 10,000 people marched from the Art Museum to the Belmont Plateau. 

“It's important to see these events in a much broader context,” she said. “The '60s were a polarizing time but were bustling in activism – from Vietnam protests to feminist and civil rights protests. They showed that protest does matter and can achieve things.”

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com