One of the most beautiful songs I know is R.E.M.'s "Cuyahoga," which, I suppose, derives at least some of its inspiration from the now-infamous occurrence on the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland, Ohio in which the river itself caught fire on the morning of 22 June 1969. It was one of those events that crystallized the issue of environmental degradation in the late '60s and early '70s. But, as Professor Jonathan Adler writes, much of what we think we know of that event is mythical. But it's an excellent example of how an event can capture the public's imagination and become something far more significant than what it, in itself, actually is.
(A much shorter version of his original paper can be found here at National Review Online.)