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. But now the newspapers had begun a campaign to finally end the smoke.
By Bob Wyss
After days of deliberation at City Hall and days of smoke throughout St. Louis, Mayor Bernard Dickmann announced he was calling city leaders together within the next week to discuss how to put an end to the black smoke smothering the city.
Skeptics had to wonder about the mayor’s sincerity.
A reporter for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat discovered that since 1867 there had been 17 ordinances, 12 plans, seven study committees and six campaigns all devoted to cleaning the city’s air. None of them were either effective or well enforced.
The record was no better anywhere else across Europe and North America. As Henry Obermeyer explained in his book Stop That Smoke, public leaders preferred not to see the smoke, or if they did, to only view it in a positive light. Obermeyer would quote them somewhat facetiously as saying “Our smoke is the symbol of our prosperity. Whatever we think among ourselves, for Heaven’s sake don’t talk about it or you’ll scare everybody away.”
Was Dickmann any different? He claimed he was. Shortly after he had been elected in 1933 he had workers scrub the exterior of the ornate, four-story City Hall. High-pressure hoses had washed the blackened walls of the 1898 building with its distinctive French Renaissance style that resembled the Paris Hotel de Ville. As the soot washed off it exposed the original colors. Longtime residents were shocked to see the first floor Missouri pink granite topped by the Roman pink-orange bricks that graced the upper levels.
Dickmann, the popular bachelor, had been the first Democrat to take control of the city in more than 20 years. Short, and barrel-chested, Bernard Francis Dickmann liked being mayor. Born to a prosperous St. Louis family, Dickmann was a realtor and president of the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange when the party in 1933 turned to him. He had never run for office, but he had toiled as a loyal Democrat for 20 years and he knew he had benefited from latching on to the coat-tails of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He also knew his party ties would only help him so far, so from the beginning he had made cleaning up the city’s air one of his highest priorities.
In February 1935 Dickmann had created a blue-ribbon committee to report on how to solve the smoke problem. It was standard practice in St. Louis for politicians to appoint groups to study the city’s smoke and to come up with a solution. But Dickmann’s study committee was different. Within a month he had a report back and the recommendation was drastic – stop burning soft coal from Illinois. That was not going to fly politically but Dickmann and his aides got a watered-down version adopted by the city after a terrible Christmas smoke pall frightened up enough votes in December 1935. Yet even this watered down version proved controversial. While the new ordinance did not prohibit the sale of Illinois coal, it required that the coal be “washed” or cleaned before it could be sold within the city limits. Coal coming into St. Louis often was coated with both fly ash and sulfur, and when burned it produced much of the soot and smoke. The ordinance also established a new Smoke Regulation Department with a commissioner to carry out and enforce its new provisions.
Those requirements were too much for those in Illinois who would have to supply this “washed” coal. Coal operators in nearby Belleville predicted that 50 percent of their industry would be wiped out by the onerous and financially ruinous requirements. The Progressive Miners of America said that “10,000 will starve if the ordinance is passed and St. Louis will lose the trade of the coal producing counties.” A mining company from nearby St. Clair County in Illinois filed a federal court suit, arguing that the ordinance was discriminatory, unreasonable and interfered with interstate commerce.
Dickmann went to Belleville and tried to reassure the city’s critics, explaining that “St. Louis wanted their business but not their dirt.” His comments did not go over well, and some Illinois communities began warning that their citizens would boycott St. Louis goods if the city did not back down.
Did the coal miners and operators truly have that much power?