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
Shortly after the first wave of smoke began to smother St. Louis in November the mayor of Belleville, Ill. offered to help in any way he or the city could be of assistance. In mid January the Smoke Elimination Committee met with Illinois coal suppliers, who promised to work with the city.
No one in St. Louis quite believed any of these pledges.
Virtually all of the coal burned in St. Louis was coming from nearby Southern Illinois. The rich deposits of bituminous soft coal were the residue of plants and organic material from a time tens of millions of years before when the Mississippi River valley was a vast swamp. While the quantity was great, the quality was not. The coal released fumes and Nepollutants when burned, especially sulfur. It also had a disturbingly high level of noncombustible rock, especially slate, that reduced its BTU value.
But it was cheap, and when St. Louis tried over the years to find ways to only buy cleaner coal the operators and merchants who supplied the city had been conciliatory at times and threatening at others. Calvin Johnson, an Illinois state representative speaking in behalf of coal operators, said the coal industry wanted to work with St. Louis. “We need St. Louis for a market for everything we produce, not only coal,” he said. But others warned that they could not survive without St. Louis and the city could not survive without their coal.
The coal here was plentiful, underlying two-thirds of the state in beds that were relatively flat and thick. French-Canadian explorers had found the first outcroppings near the Illinois River in 1670 and coal had been harvested since the early 19th Century, about the time St. Louis was developing. At first operators had used conventional mining but more recently a few operators had turned to a new technology, strip mining. The effects of strip mining were especially noticeable in the region called Little Egypt, named after nearby Cairo, where in 1940 one could see huge mounds of yellow clay, destroyed vegetation and open pits. Coal production in Illinois had also peaked in 1918 and the Depression had been particularly brutal.
Coal operations at times were harsh. While the area’s economy was based more on farming than coal mining, the region had a violent streak, especially in the coalfields. Thomas Mitchell had created the United Mine Workers in 1898 by walking from mine to mine in Southern Illinois organizing workers. When a strike broke out in 1922 in nearby Williamson County, more than 20 guards and strikebreakers were beaten to death. It was so violent that some of the bodies were mutilated. No one was ever convicted for the Bloody Williamson uprising. When another strike occurred in 1932 and 1933 the state’s militia was called in and stayed more than six months while violence, bombings and killings continued.
Customers also faced a demanding supplier. For the last 20 years Southern Illinois threatened a boycott whenever St. Louis considered a plan to clean its air. In 1936 the city considered an ordinance that did not prohibit the sale of Illinois coal but did required that the coal be “washed” or cleaned before it could be sold within the city limits. Illinois opposed the measure and it almost did not get passed until after December, 1936 when the city underwent yet another Christmas smoke pall.
After its passage Illinois coal suppliers said they would not work with the city and they tried to convince residents outside of St. Louis to boycott any goods produced or sold in the city.
Coal operators in nearby Belleville predicted that 50 percent of their industry would be wiped out by the onerous and financially ruinous requirements. The Progressive Miners of America predicted, “10,000 will starve if the ordinance is passed and St. Louis will lose the trade of the coal producing counties.” A mining company from nearby St. Clair County in Illinois filed a federal court suit, arguing that the ordinance was discriminatory, unreasonable and interfered with interstate commerce.
Two Illinois-based chambers of commerce in Belleville and Collinsville had gone so far as to take out full-page ads in both the Post-Dispatch and Globe-Democrat inviting St. Louis industries to move to Illinois. Besides offering cheap coal and transportation costs, the ad said, “We have no inhibitive smoke ordinances or other city regulations which say how the coal you use shall be treated.” The boycott campaign even got an assist from the Illinois governor.
St. Louis Mayor Bernard Dickmann went to Belleville and tried to reassure the city’s critics, explaining, “St. Louis wanted their business but not their dirt.” His comments were not well received.
The boycott calls of three years earlier never really got going, but only because the ordinance was so ineffective.
By now the Smoke Elimination Committee knew the only solution would be to stop burning soft, cheap coal from Southern Illinois. But how was it going to keep peace with such unruly neighbors?