Saving Life By Doing the Unthinkable

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, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting.

By Bob Wyss

The damage was extensive.  While there were few deaths, there were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of casualties.  Days afterwards many of the survivors were still struggling to take in air. Limbs were limp or bent, and many survivors bore odd coloring, displaying hues of yellow, brown or even black. Their flowers and leaves were dropping to the ground.


George Moore, Garden Director

They were all plants or trees and they were fighting to survive at the renowned Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, The tropical’s, especially the orchids, seemed most affected, but even the evergreens were suffering.

It was late fall in 1917 and black smoke had descended on the city once again.

The Missouri Botanical Garden was a great treasure at the corner of Shaw Boulevard and Tower Grove Avenue in central St. Louis. Henry Shaw had built a fortune in St. Louis in the hardware business, retired at age 40, and built his garden.  The garden had a close relationship with Washington University’s Botany School – also founded by Shaw – and by the early decades of the Twentieth Century its botanical resources were among the greatest in the world.

The garden’s staff was voracious in buying what they could not gather on their own, and that’s why its Herbarium for instance was one of the best in the world, with prized specimens collected by Charles Darwin on his voyage with the HMS Beagle and others found on the 1768 voyage of Captain James Cook.     The orchids, which were especially threatened by the St. Louis coal smoke, also carried an international reputation

Paul Allen, who managed the garden’s Panama substation would go out on weekends and gather literally truckloads of orchids. During one trip back to St. Louis he described how he had brought 500 species back with him and he was hoping that the staff would be able to identify how many were new discoveries.

There was much to lose and no one understood the dangers of coal smoke more than George T. Moore, who took over as the garden’s director in 1912.  He quickly became involved in a whirlwind of activity both at the garden and beyond in both civic and municipal volunteer roles.   And many of those roles focused on the problem of the coal smoke. Moore also served as voluntary president of the Citizens Smoke Abatement League in 1926, a community effort which quickly raised $192,000.

Over the next years the league carried out a campaign that included public meetings, radio addresses, reports and advertisements on the ills of smoke pollution.  The most successful aspect of the campaign was the hiring of 36 employees, described as inspectors, who visited factories, offices, hotels, apartments and even duplexes and homes, providing lessons on how to fire boilers and produce less smoke.  The inspectors were spectacularly successful, and for several winters the amount of smoke in the city was cut by more than 50 percent.

Moore also imported from England an air filtering mechanism that measured the amount of smoke in the air.  It showed that St. Louis residents were each inhaling an average of 28 pounds of soot each year.  Moore refrained from saying how this affected the health of those living in St. Louis, but in interviews and talks about the issue he would cite studies in England that linked air pollution to increased respiratory problems.  And, ever the botanist, he was more direct in talking about their effect on plants, saying that it would be fatal to all but the most resistant plants.

Then Moore began talking about the unthinkable. Beginning in the early 1920s Moore and his staff could look at early photographs of the garden and compare them with what remained, and the discovered that the picture was not pretty.  Many of the evergreens in particular were gone, casualties of the smoke pollution, according to Moore.  He told the board of trustees in late 1922 that they had no alternative – the great botanical garden should move out of St. Louis.

The city was no longer safe.

It was a shocking idea.  Would the Botanical Garden truly abandon St. Louis?  Would it move its plants and leave the people of St. Louis behind?


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