Leaders Hear Radical Ideas

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, but the coal dealers and producers who had created the problem had always fought and won previous efforts to end the pollution.

By Bob Wyss

A week had passed since the worst of the black smoke had descended. It had not relented. True, the smoke lifted for a while, but it always came back. It may not have been as thick as a week ago, but it was unavoidable.

The decision to fight the smoke was also unavoidable. Mayor Bernard Dickmann had invited 52 citizens to City Hall today in the wake of the smoke crisis. They came from business, the universities, civic organizations and from government. They were virtually all men, except for Jeanne Blythe of the St. Louis League of Women Voters. It was an extraordinary gathering that was destined to feature some radical ideas.

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Fifty-two leaders come to City Hall

It was also a staged event. Dickmann made it clear very early that he had a resolution that he wanted passed that involved appointing a small committee to investigate the smoke problem. He told the crowd he was looking for strong measures, although it was not a time for “hysteria. This is not a program you can settle within 30 days. But we can solve it over a three or four-year program if we keep our feet on the ground and handle it constructively, where it will do the least harm.”

Three proposals were presented to the gathering.

Joseph M. Darst, the city’s director of public welfare, proposed what he called an educational campaign. In actuality, it involved stationing city employees (hired under the federal WPA or Works Progress Administration) on each block where the pollution was the worst. The workers would seek out the chimneys creating the biggest problems and work to teach the owners how to cut the amount of smoke they were producing.

Frank J. McDevitt suggested buying the city’s major gas company, Laclede Gas Light Co., and using its facilities to convert coal into cleaner burning coke. Laclede, like most gas companies at that time, for decades had been manufacturing gas from coal and coke on a small scale.

The most extreme measure came from Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker, who suggested producing a massive amount of the manufactured gas from coke and coal, selling it to Laclede, which would then sell the gas to residential customers. Under this proposal the city would go from one that relied primarily on coal for its energy to one that instead used gas. Tucker also wanted to take immediate steps to stop the many trains passing through the city from burning coal, by forcing them to convert to oil or diesel.

None of the ideas were put to a vote. Instead, Dickmann introduced his resolution that called for a new smoke committee that would investigate and report back to the mayor. Committee members were to have no ties to any particular fuel. It was approved unanimously.

Dickman was pleased.

“Spread the word,” he told the reporters who had been waiting outside. “Your presence here today shows that this is not a task that St. Louis can’t accomplish, and we will do it.”

He had enough time to joke about a letter he had recently received from a glass company. The writer had suggested that St. Louis consider putting a glass ceiling over the city.

Dickmann did not add that the idea was not that much more radical then finding a way to end the smoke that had been invading St. Louis each winter for the past few decades.

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