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. Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past but on December 5 a gathering of 52 citizens declared that change was coming.
By Bob Wyss
The new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time today, December 13, 1939. Of the seven members (all males) only one – Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker – had any knowledge about the city’s air pollution problems.
James L. Ford, a banker was chosen as chairman and as the committee began to discuss what was ahead he posed a challenging question to Tucker.
“Is there any community that has solved this problem?” he asked.
“None, as far as I know,” replied Tucker.
Yet the committee knew that they would have to find a solution. Mayor Bernard Dickmann had made that clear in announcing their appointment.
“This is to be called the Smoke Elimination Committee,” Dickmann told reporters during a press conference. “I am tired of the word abatement applied to such a group. From this committee I want action, not just a report. This committee is not going to be dormant – it is going to act.”
The mayor had also spoken on two radio stations KSD and KMOX to promote his selections. By this point KSD had reserved 15 minutes every Sunday afternoon to bring listeners up to date on the city’s smoke problems, a sign as Dickmann said that there was a new attitude in the city, primarily because of the press.
He said the city’s newspapers had thrown “themselves into the fight with a renewed vigor that has never lagged. The result has been that within two short weeks St. Louis has organized itself into the greatest united front for a common cause ever existent in our city. I thank the press, the radio stations, public and private organizations and all individual organizations, and individuals for this new spirit of a new St. Louis.”
The committee convened at 11 a.m. in the mayor’s office of City Hall. Besides Tucker, Dickmann had insured loyalty by appointing his secretary, John B. Sullivan. A physician, Dr. Alphonse McMahon, was there as a public health expert. Kelton White, a retired broker, and Ford, vice president of the First National Bank, had financial expertise and could build support from the business community. Real estate might also be involved in such a venture, and that was why Chase Ulman, one of the city’s major developers, was on the committee. Gaston DuBois, as a chemist for Monsanto Chemical Co. could provide technical expertise.
Ford, the banker, was chosen as chairman because he had played a leading role in a recent major charity campaign. At first he argued he was not qualified. “I know absolutely nothing about the problem,” he said. Dickmann who was attending responded that the committee needed someone practical and not a technical expert.
It would turn out to be a wise decision. Not only would Ford work with Tucker and Dickmann in leading the campaign for the next year but his business and political connections would come in handy at key points.
Tucker told the committee that the air pollution was coming from three sources and he felt he could easily control two of them, the business community including both commercial and industrial sectors, and secondly the railroads. Many firms were already using cleaner fuels, including fuel oil, natural gas, diesel or coal byproducts that were smokeless. The railroads were still a problem, but Tucker felt he could control their emissions.
The third sector was the residential market, and that was where the problem was the greatest. Only a small number of dwellings burned smokeless fuels. Tucker estimated that 2.5 million of the 4 million tons of soft coal burned in the city each year came from single family homes and apartment buildings. To truly reduce the pollution, the city would have to find another source for at least 2 million tons a year that residents burned. That would not be easy, Tucker told them, because the Illinois soft coal could be bought for about $2.75 a ton. Other fuels cost more than double that.
St. Louis had become addicted to this cheap, soft coal. Later, Tucker would report: “I have consulted other towns of 500,000 or over, and I don’t believe there is any place where fuel is sold as cheaply as here.”
Meanwhile outside, in the middle of the day, patches of black smoke lingered yet another day.