The story so far: On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents. Mayor Bernard Dickmann vowed to end the air pollution, but offered no solutions.
By Bob Wyss
It was the morning after. Raymond Tucker was scheduled to talk to the Missouri Federation of Women’s Clubs. If he had a prepared talk, it was abandoned after what had happened the day before. Tucker was in charge of the city’s air quality. He held the title smoke commissioner, although some called him the smoke czar. After a day in which visibility had fallen to ten feet, he may have held the most unpopular job in St. Louis.
Tucker told the women that despite yesterday’s debacle, change was coming. “In the near future the city administration will give you a program, fixing a date on which smoke can be eliminated,” he said. “Of course, this cannot happen overnight. We are seriously studying all the suggestions which have been made to us. However, I do not intend to recommend something which will be known as Tucker’s Folly.”
He urged the women to do whatever they could to burn cleaner fuel in their homes, and to convince their neighbors to do the same. The women then approved a resolution calling upon the 10,640 club women in the St. Louis area to cooperate.
It was not like St. Louis, and much of the industrialized world had not had warnings about the dangers of this smoke problem. Across the urban centers of North America and Europe bilious clouds of coal smoke would often arise on cold winter days more often than fog and it had been going on for decades. It was an air pollution than one could see, smell and breathe – and it was dangerous to everything from the economy to human health.
Henry Obermeyer, in a 1933 book Stop That Smoke, railed at the dimensions of what the nation faced. He said that the corrosive smoke was causing buildings to rot at their foundation, merchandise in stores was spoiling, laundry bills “were beyond reason,” parks and gardens were being stripped of vegetation and electric light costs to illuminate the daylight were rising.
He could cite specific examples. In Pittsburgh one cost was the mortar in the stones of the city’s buildings. The mortar was decaying, being eaten by the acidic clouds of winter air pollution. New York could judge it by the loss of its landscape in Central Park. In 1928 the city spent $873,420 to replace the trees and shrubs that botanists said were dying from the air pollution. In Washington the marble façade of the Washington Monument was discoloring and showing signs of disintegration. Soot from nearby government buildings was staining the Lincoln Memorial. In Paris, the City of Light, the coal smoke was so thick that it was blackening Notre Dame and the acidic fumes were eating at the cathedral’s ornamental monuments.
“Much of the beautiful carving on one façade of the cathedral has already been badly eaten by the corrosive action of smoke-laden incrustations,” a report at the time warned.
Obermeyer said that smoke was just not harming property, it was killing people. Every breath of the smoke-laden air meant that people were inhaling six times more in dangerous chemicals than was safe. A former Chicago city health commissioner had concluded that residents in urban areas were dying from respiratory problems caused by the coal smoke at a rate 60 percent higher than in rural areas. Children were particularly at risk.
The most obvious solution was to stop using the coal that was creating the problem, but that would be like deciding not to use gasoline in automobiles or electricity for lighting. America depended on coal for better than 50 percent of its energy, far more than any other source including oil or natural gas. King coal was the foundation of the nation’s wealth. It fired the nation’s iron foundries, steel mills and factories, ran its locomotives and especially warmed the hearths of most homes. Humans had been using coal beginning 6,000 years.
Nowhere was the air pollution worse than St. Louis. A 1937 study found that the city’s level of sulfur in the air was twice as high as Pittsburgh and three times dirtier than Detroit’s. A separate study declared that St. Louis had the foulest air in the nation. Geography and geology were the causes. The confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers had built the city’s commercial hub but those lower river valleys were also ideal for trapping pollution. Plus, the coal St. Louis depended on was nearby in rich veins in Southern Illinois and it was cheap, costing as little at $3 to $4 a ton. But that soft coal was rich in sulfur. There was better quality coal, bituminous and anthracite, but it cost twice as much and came from as far away as Pennsylvania.
Tucker could say what he wanted to the women of St. Louis. But it was going to take a miracle to make the air clean again. And yet even as Tucker spoke, an old adversary was preparing to help the smoke czar.