Engineers Warn: Smoke Goes Or Else

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 engineers were blunt – get rid of the smoke or the engineers would flee St. Louis.

That warning came in a message delivered this week, 75 years ago, by J.S. McDonnell, who was trying to build an aircraft company in St. Louis.  McDonnell was president of the McDonnell Aircraft Corp. based at the local airport, Lambert Field.  In September he had recruited 20 aeronautical engineers and now these men were complaining that they would not subject their wives and families to live with the atrocious air pollution in St. Louis.


The 20 engineers worked for what became a major defense, aircraft and space age firm. AP Photo

The air pollution was the engineer’s only complaint, but it was loud enough to make the front page of the city’s newspapers.  It also earned a ringing editorial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch warning that the engineer’s complaint needed to be heard.

“It would be no trouble at all for us to transfer operations at the present time to some other place,” said Wade T. Childress, a director of the McDonnell company.  “All the engineers would have to do would be to pick up their blue prints and brief cases.”

The city’s reputation was already notorious.  McDonnell had failed to recruit two other engineers because they said they would not put up with the smoke that fouled the city each winter.  One was from Los Angeles, the other from Buffalo.

The pressure from this announcement was being directed applied at this point to the seven men who comprised the Smoke Elimination Committee.  The members had been meeting two and sometimes three times a week in sessions that could take much of the day.  At this point they were still investigating possibilities.  Or perhaps they were eliminating possibilities.

A week earlier they had met with representatives of the stove and stoker industry.  Installing better equipment to heat individual homes seemed like a good option and stockers seemed especially desirable.

Stokers provided automatic fuel feeds to a coal-fired boiler, which made them far more efficient than a conventional hand-fired boiler, which was usually banked periodically with more coal than it could burn.  For instance the cost with a stoker was about $45 a year, compared to $65 a year for a hand-fired system.

And yet people were not buying stokers in St. Louis, even though they not only were cheaper but created far less pollution.

The reason was that stokers could not burn the cheap, soft coal from nearby Illinois. That savings one got from the stoker only occurred when the more expensive coal was used.

Most people did not want to pay a higher price, no matter how much air pollution was occurring.

In some respects, the discussion was not that different than what has been occurring today.  We know that burning coal to generate electricity is both cheap and environmentally damaging.  And yet for years utilities were allowed to continue to burn coal, despite the costs especially to climate change.

The one difference was that few could see how coal was damaging the environment in the 21st Century.  It was obvious 75 years ago.

But the Smoke Elimination Committee knew it had to heed the warnings of groups like the McDonnell aeronautical engineers.

No one knew at the time, but this minute, fledgling company would eventually grow into a major corporate power.  Especially after its merger in 1967 the new McDonnell Douglas Corporation would become a major producer of jet fighters, commercial aircraft and space vehicles.  It flourished until it was acquired in 1997 by Boeing Corporation in a $13 billion stock swap.

The decision to stay in St. Louis was predicated on what would happen in 1940.


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