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. The three city newspaper’s began a campaign to eliminate the smoke, forgetting that four years before Mayor Bernard Dickmann had created a new ordinance to end the pollution. But Southern Illinois coal dealers opposed it and Dickmann looked for help.
By Bob Wyss
The last job in the world that Raymond Tucker wanted was to be the St. Louis smoke czar.
Yet Mayor Bernard Dickmann believed that only Tucker, his aide who had written the 1935 law attempting to control the city’s air pollution, could stand up to the Illinois coal dealers. It was their fuel that was causing the problem.
In retrospect, the job of smoke commissioner in 1939 created the pivotal catalyst in Tucker’s career. He would go on to be one of the pre-eminent experts in air pollution. Los Angeles after World War 2 asked for his help in dealing with its growing smog problem. St. Louis voters in 1953 elected him to the first of three terms as mayor. A main thoroughfare in the city bares his name.
But in 1935 all Tucker could see were problems – 140,000 of them. That’s how many chimneys, most individually owned, were spewing smoke from the coal used to heat single-family homes and apartments. “Would it have been possible to eradicate typhoid fever in the City of St. Louis,” he would ask, “if we had 140,000 possible sources of contamination?”
He could remember his father, years ago and also an engineer, joining the legion of good citizens in the city rallying for cleaner air. He did not want to be in the other camp. The Tucker family had been prominent in St. Louis for over a century. Tucker, his wife Edythe and their two children, lived in the South St. Louis neighborhood of Carondelet, less than a mile from where he had been born in 1896. From there he had attended local schools and eventually had gone on to St. Louis University and Washington University, before he became an engineer. For 13 years he had taught at Washington University. Tucker had surprised many of his friends when he decided to join the Dickmann administration. It was not clear if he was really cut out for public service. He was known as a no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point kind of guy. He often bristled when criticized and he was quick to respond. Still, after turning down Dickmann once and then keeping him waiting when the mayor asked again, Tucker finally agreed to become smoke commissioner.
Tucker created a staff to enforce the new rules, which also required larger businesses to have more efficient boilers and heating equipment. After issuing warnings, his staff began giving out citations and in their first year the office prosecuted more than 600 businesses and property owners and sealed the smokestacks of 200.
Yet just as Tucker had feared, by the fall of 1939 people were getting inpatient and increasingly they blamed him for not doing enough. The first thick pall of smoke arrived November 6, first clouding downtown and then moving westward as far as the city’s airport. “We have no apologies to make,” said Tucker. “We will continue to have the smoke nuisance until we get a smokeless fuel.”
But the smoke was bad and it was frequent. Some began to notice that the soot stains on City Hall seemed to be returning. Criticism began to increase, and some of it was personal. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Page Editor Ralph Coghlan had tried to minimize Tucker’s efforts by calling him the “brilliant epistolarian” and “Tucker the tinker.” But Katherine Darst, a columnist at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, said the city should be thankful it had Tucker to push around because it was hard to get mad at smoke. Besides, she said, Tucker looked bad in print when “he used big words like ‘sulfurous acid content of our atmospheric air’.”
In a guest column in the Post-Dispatch, Harry Salpeter, who regularly wrote for magazines such as Esquire and Coronet, called St. Louis “the ugliest in America” and he blamed the smoke as the reason. Salpeter said he had been recently visiting St. Louis and even after he returned home to New York he said that he was still coughing out of his lungs the filthy smoke of St. Louis. “Smoke is the pervasive thing that I see, smell, breathe and cough. It is not only a thing, it is almost the quality of St. Louis,” he wrote. Then there were the many letters to the editors that the newspapers were publishing about the pollution. On November 19 the Post-Dispatch had printed 15 letters and almost all of them were critical of the city administration. Athene Ruth Stewart wrote “This week St. Louis atmosphere honors Mr. Tucker, the foremost Smoke Permissioner in Amerca.”
Tucker was about to receive help. It was coming tomorrow, one week after Black Tuesday.