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. For years the city and every other major urban area had been plagued each winter by these blankets of coal smoke.
By Bob Wyss
JP II had had it. The publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Joseph Pulitzer II,
was increasingly vexed because each time his train crossed the Mississippi River and arrived in St. Louis he was greeted by clouds of smoke.
Earlier in the fall of 1939 Pulitzer directed his staff to assemble a team and to begin an old-fashioned crusade against the smoke problem. The reporter chosen was Sam J. Shelton, an Army sergeant during World War I who had already made a name for himself as an investigative reporter. While Shelton’s name would appear on only a few stories (bylines were dispersed sparingly), he was behind most of the coverage. In the newsroom, he was dubbed the smoke editor.
On the editorial side was Ralph Coghlan, the editorial page editor, and cartoonist Daniel R. Fitzpatrick, two longtime journalists unafraid of expressing strong opinions. Coghlan, owlish and ruddy-faced, was known for his acerbic pen and flare for the dramatic. Once, he got so upset when a politician was acquitted in a local court that his editorial of outrage earned him a contempt of court citation and 20 days in jail. After another venture the Governor of Missouri threatened to jail Coghlan. Eventually Pulitzer would banish Coghlan to Europe after one too many drunken brawls.
Daniel Fitzpatrick was never quite as colorful in his 45-year career at the Post Dispatch. He was already a veteran newspaper cartoonist when the Post-Dispatch hired him at the age of 22. Now, after 25 years at the paper and having won one Pulitzer Prize, the sandy-haired, white-mustached Fitzpatrick was one of the top cartoonists in America, according to Time magazine.
The first Post-Dispatch editorial began November 13 by complaining about the city’s air pollution and declaring that “something must be done, or else…” Shelton’s stories were also running and he wrote a long memo outlining the newspaper’s smoke campaign. Coghlan was also eager for another fight. He wrote Pulitzer that the smoke problem was challenging, but “it was not insuperable. It seems to me that here is a classic opportunity for St. Louis to cut the Gordian knot instead of fiddling around and trying to untie it.”
The city’s two rival newspapers quickly responded to the Post-Dispatch campaign. On November 14 the evening St. Louis Star-Times published an editorial declaring that “St. Louis is sick and tired of smoke.” Called the Green Sheet, the Star-Times was small but nimble on such stories. The editorial added: “It is ridiculous to suppose that a modern American city, simply because it is located close to Illinois soft coal fields, must submit indefinitely to smoke blankets.”
When Coghlan saw the editorial he was alarmed. He tore it out, and in a thick black pen wrote a memo to Pulitzer directly on the newsprint. “The Star-Times is getting warm,” he wrote. “It is getting perilously close to our idea.”
On Friday, November 24 the St. Louis Globe-Democrat joined the fray. “What St. Louis demands is remedy,” the Globe-Democrat declared editorially. “The vicious smoke nuisance demands drastic, big-visioned steps. Only when such a movement materializes will the city have any hope of banishing the smoke plague.” Unlike the Star-Times, the Globe-Democrat had the resources to match the Post-Dispatch in news coverage and a great managing editor in Joseph McAuliffe. McAuliffe had earned respect his first day as a cub reporter, covering a murder suicide during the day and a train wreck that night. Plus it had a great editorial page editor in Casper S. Yost.
By now all three newspapers were not only writing about the smoke nuisance but editorially they were calling for the city to take over the privately-run coal business. The Sunday, November 26 Post-Dispatch was especially succinct – the city should buy a “smokeless fuel” from wholesale suppliers and establish depots throughout St. Louis. “St. Louis has been talking about smoke for 50 years,” it said. “Let’s do something about it.” Published adjacent to the editorial was a cartoon depicting numerous chimneys and smokestacks belching smoke, including one prominent stack where the smoke billowed up and arms were grasping a house that was beginning to splinter and fall apart. At the bottom it said: “Can’t Go On Forever.”
The Post-Dispatch reported that it had “been swamped with letters from readers pleading, insisting, even shouting for an attack upon the evil which is ruining our city.” In an unusual gesture, it quoted portions of both the recent Star-Times and Globe-Democrat editorials demanding change.
All of this ferver came in the days before the massive black cloud enveloped the city on November 28. Now that the smoke had arrived, pressure was building. The city could no longer hope that these clouds would dissipate by themselves.