News Gets Blacker in St. Louis

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. Through January they were meeting regularly while newspapers were detailing how the smoke was damaging St. Louis.

By Bob Wyss

Three news stories this week further clouded the terribly black winter of 1940 for St. Louis.

They came from extremely varied sources – one of the nation’s most respected magazines, a historical report by a local historical society and a scientific summary by botanists.

The one that produced the most attention came from Life magazine. In a story titled Speaking of Pictures – Blackout in St. Louis it published several photographs taken by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the coal smoke that had been blanketing the city for more than two months now.

The story said readers might assume the photos were of a European city, but that assumption would be wrong. “St. Louis has long been a sooty city,” the article stated. “It is probably the smokiest municipality in the country, worse even than Pittsburgh.”

As St. Louis already knew, the article blamed the thick air pollution on the soft coal residents liked to buy from Illinois.

Solutions, the article reported, ranged from having air planes fly about the clouds and seed them with chemicals in an attempt to get them to disperse, or installing huge fans that would blow the smoke away.

City officials led by Mayor Bernard Dickmann were upset by the story and the shame it was bringing to St. Louis, but they conceded it was now up to the Smoke Elimination Committee to find a solution.

In some respects, the other two articles were even more alarming.

The Missouri Historical Society reported that research was indicating that the smoke had been a problem in the city since at least 1823. In the most recent issue of the Society’s bulletin, it quoted from an article in the Missouri Republican of January 22, 1823. The story stated: “The smoke in the atmosphere which appears particularly in the fall is a phenomenon that remains to be accounted for…It is well known that this smoke has been in some instances so dense as to render it necessary to use candles in mid-day.”

The city in 1823 was relatively young. Founded in 1764, it had not become the territorial capitol until after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. But by1848 the city had grown to 62,000 and another publication article reported that the smoke problem was worsening. The Western Journal, a monthly magazine published two letters from prominent citizens complaining that the city’s smoke problem needed to be resolved immediately. One of the letters writers said that St. Louis was heading towards becoming “the emporium of disease in place of energy, genius and skill” because of its air pollution.

The third publication to weigh in was the annual report of the Missouri Botanical Garden which summarized why it had been such a sound decision to begin moving much of its operations out of St. Louis to new facilities 25 miles away in Gray Summit.

Over the last nine years, report stated, there had been an average of 188 fewer hours of sunshine annually at the city garden as opposed to the more rural facilities in Gray Summit. While the numbers varied per month, the greatest difference occurred in the winter, when coal smoke from winter fires was especially thick.

The news 75 years ago today in St. Louis was indeed dark.


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