Government Ponders Coal Takeover

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

For decades St. Louis had been waiting for someone to come up with a solution to its winters befouled by coal black smoke.

The result, 75 years ago in the winter of 1939-40, was the blackest, foulest, most smoke-infested winter in memory.

As the Smoke Elimination Committee met on Dec. 22, 1939 members began to question whether private industry was up to the task.  Perhaps it was time for the city to take over the role of acquiring and selling all fuel supplies in St. Louis.

It was a radical idea that increasingly was being embraced by more and more people this winter in St. Louis.

Ralph Coghlan, the editorial page editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, told Publisher Joseph Pulitzer II of an encountered he had had with a prominent businessman.  The man was “an unreconstructed Tory,” who was bitter opposed on principle to public ownership of any utility.  Yet that individual had told Coghlan that the only solution was a municipally-owned plant to produce cleaner fuel.  Plus, added Coghlan, Erastus Wells, vice president of the St. Louis Union Trust Co., was urging the Post-Dispatch to run a campaign to accomplish this.

All three of the city’s newspapers had issued editorials supporting the idea of a municipal plant that would produce a more cleaner-burning coal.

The St. Louis Star-Times’ November 14 editorial was as pointed and direct as anything that would be written across town by Coghlan.  It said that it had had heard enough excuses about the city’s smoke problem.  “This is absurd,” the editorial stated. “It is ridiculous to suppose that a modern American city, simply because it is located close to Illinois soft coal fields, must submit indefinitely to smoke blankets.”  The editorial suggested that the city build a municipal coal plant and if the fuel was expensive then the city should consider subsidizing the price.

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat agreed and called for a city-owned plant that would produce a smokeless fuel.  The editorial said it was confident that a new product could be produced in the plant for about $5 a ton, which was still considerably above what many people were now paying for the soft coal that was causing the problem.

Sam Shelton, who was reporting the story for the Post-Dispatch, wrote a long memo to his editors indicating that the city’s best option would be to establish a municipal yard to buy cleaner fuels and to sell them to local dealers.  That way the city could control the final price to consumers through regulation.

But at the meeting on Dec. 22 the committee began to meet some resistance to government control.  Alexander Langsdorf of the Washington University School of Engineering told the committee that municipal control was not the answer.  Private enterprise could still solve the problem, he assured committee members.

But how?

They discussed the options, which ranged from cleaner coal products to natural gas.  They had already begun to explore each of them in meetings, and would continue for the next month.  But none looked promising.  The harder coal products were far more expensive.  Natural gas seemed a better solution, but the local utility company seemed reluctant to expand and supply enough fuel in a timely manner.

Langsdorf suggested that perhaps the burden to buying a cleaner, more expensive fuel should be placed on the landlord rather than the tenant.

Wasn’t that a form of confiscation, asked one committee member.

No, Langsdorf replied, it was an issue of civic responsibility.

When committee members left City Hall late that day they noticed that the smoke was not as thick this evening as it had been.  The day before the smoke had been nearly as bad as the first major attack Nov. 28.  It was the seventh severe attack of the month and the 19th since Oct. 31.

The smoke was not lifting and so far the committee had no answers, no solution.

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