Plants Forsake St. Louis and People

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

In February, 1923 the impossible became reality.  The board of directors agreed to begin moving portions of the Missouri Botanical Garden out of the city of St. Louis. Newspaper headlines at time were not upbeat:  “Smoke To Cost City At Least Part of Shaw’s Garden,” and “New Site Bought By Shaw’s Garden to Escape Smoke.”


George Moore, Garden Director

George T. Moore, the garden’s director, said that many of the garden’s resources, including its library, research facilities, and its public gardens and display areas would remain in St. Louis but that safer grounds for other species needed to be found outside of the city.

It took two years to find a suitable site for the new garden.  A headline in the Globe-Democrat Magazine called it “A Botanical Paradise on the Meramec.”  The 1,300 acres were 38 miles outside of St. Louis near Gray Summit.  The land had been comprised of five separate farms and it featured rich clay and sandy loam, black bottom land, and limestone bluffs along the Meramec River that bordered one side of the property.  There were also good roads back to St. Louis, a critical factor if plants and collections were now going to be transferred out of the city.

Work began almost immediately on the construction of eight greenhouses, each 100 feet long and 27 feet wide.  They featured special shading to help the orchids get through the hot Missouri summers and a water evaporation system to keep them moist year-round. When the greenhouses were completed, virtually the entire orchid collection, along with some of the tropicals, were transferred there.


Shaw Mansion at Garden – AP Photo

To make up for the loss of evergreens at the St. Louis grounds 60 acres at Gray Summit were set aside for what was soon being called the Pinetum.  Pine, spruce, cypress and juniper from North America, Europe and Asia – 450 species in all – were planted around a three-acre lake that was carved out of a ditch using mule-drawn equipment.  Crabapple, cherry, apple, dogwood, redbud were planted along with 15,000 dafodils that would bloom each spring and produce another great show for visitors.

Moore’s decision to move the more delicate plants was vindicated in December, 1927 when a particularly foul attack of smoke settled over St. Louis for several days during the Christmas holiday. Moore announced that his air monitoring equipment showed that each person had inhaled 1.25 ounces of soot.   To pound his message home that smoke was dangerous, in the days after the so-called Black Christmas attack he staged a special display of plants that had been severely affected by the smoke.  Poinsettias before Christmas had been particularly lush.  Now, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, “Not a plant is left with more than three or four leaves.  The bracts that flaunted their crimson so magnificently are drooping.  The hundreds of tiny flowers that bordered the poinsettia exhibit dropped their blossoms last Sunday, when the smoke closed down, and the entire plants in many cases are beginning to wither.”  Plants and trees normally in the nearby Flower House were also included, and most had lost at least a quarter of their leaves.  The reporter went on to report: “The strychnine plant in a flower house special exhibit lost every leaf.  Three great flame trees in the south end of the flower house are turning like maples in autumn and even thick, hard leaves of the rubber trees along the side are beginning to turn.”

Moore repeatedly stated that some aspects of the botanical garden would remain in St. Louis but by 1930 he was changing his mind.  The contrast between the city garden and the country grounds was startling. The improvements in the orchids at Gray Summit were a “little short of phenomenal,” according to a 1928 report.  By 1930 virtually all of the evergreens that in St. Louis had died except for one hemlock and a few Austrian pines whose stems and branches were twisted and distorted.  The dogwoods in St. Louis never bloomed while in Gray Summit their blossoms were startlingly beautiful.

By 1933 Moore was openly talking about closing the St. Louis facility but over the years he could not make it happen.  The Depression was underway and what little money that could be raised had to go to maintaining the current grounds.  Plus, the board was divided on the issue.  By December, 1939 he had made very little headway in moving all of the gardens to the country.

In a radio address in 1930 Moore summed up his worries about these continuing smoke attacks in St. Louis. “It is only after witnessing a spectacle of this kind that one can begin to comprehend how poisonous smoke can be to plants,” he said.  “The question arises, if all vegetation suffers as it obvious does from smoke, what is happening to human beings?”

What indeed?  Moore and the Missouri Botanical Garden had clearly saved a few thousand beautiful orchids and they were bringing back life in the country. But what about what had been left behind in the city?  What was going to happen to the people of St. Louis?  Would anyone come to save them?


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