St. Louis Records Blackest Year Ever

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

Seventy-five years ago the biggest story in the world in 1939 was the outbreak of World War II.  But in St. Louis, as the St Louis Post-Dispatch reported at the close of the year, residents were “more likely to remember it simply as the year of the great smoke.”

Never before had residents been so beset by black clouds of coal smoke.  The U.S. Weather Bureau reported that there were 29 days of thick smoke in 1939 in St. Louis.  Twenty had occurred in November and December.

The highest number in the past, according to records that dated to 1905, had been 18.

The average was nine.

But it was not just the frequency of the black clouds that was remarkable – it was also how thick and dense the smoke could get at times.

On the morning of Dec. 6, 1939 a photographer for the St. Louis Star-Times went to the top of the 21-story Railway Exchange Building in downtown.  It was sunny.  He could see the tops of other tall buildings, jutting out from the clouds below.  As the story reported, it was “a beautiful day, if you didn’t look down.”

The story went on to report:  “Below, the smoke was so thick the building shadows were caught by its upper layer.  Dimly through the muck could be seen lights of street cars, lighted shop signs and automobile headlights.  The entire city seemed to be blanketed in smoke except for the riverfront area which stood out bright in sunlight.  East St. Louis was smoky but not as much so as St Louis.”

Why was St. Louis so prone to such severe attacks by coal smoke?

Henry Gross, a meteorologist at the time, explained that St. Louis was often dead center in a series of slow-moving high-pressure systems.  This caused the wind to diminish, and the clouds of smoke to thicken and not move.

Usually these high-pressure systems moved on within a day, which allowed the wind to pick up and whisk the clouds away.  One of the chief features of these smoke attacks was that they usually only lasted a day or so.

But Gross said what made it particularly challenging for St. Louis was that often in the winter these high-pressure centers came down from the north, bringing especially frigid temperatures.

The result was that most citizens fired up their coal-fired boilers and heaters more often, which only produced even more smoke.

November and December were often worst than January or February, added Gross, because the high-pressure centers did not linger as long in the latter months as they did in the late fall and early winter.

Gross told the Post-Dispatch that he had one solution for the problem – “install batteries of herculean blowers around the city.”  There would have to be enough to produce winds of at least six miles per hour velocity.  Less would not clear the smoke.

But as Gross thought about his idea he had misgivings.  It had nothing to do with the cost or the practicality.  Even if the blowers succeeded, he realized, “the smoke would simply be blown into somebody else’s back yard.”

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