Even Flag Sitters Can’t Help 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

Frank “Shipwreck” Kelly had a proposition for St. Louis. He would come to the city and join the more than 300 municipal smoke inspectors from his unique vantage point.

Kelly was a former Hollywood stuntman who had originated the craze of flag-pole sitting when he clambered up a pole in 1924 and stayed there for 13 hours. By 1940 the craze Kelly had begun had long passed. Still, he got the publicity on this day that he had been seeking.

City Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker replied that the city had eight inspectors, all certified engineers, and Kelly’s help was not needed.


Coal operators made periodic appeals to the city. Tucker Archives

As January came to a close the city’s Smoke Elimination Committee was nearing the end of its investigation. It had reached out to almost everyone in an effort to find an acceptable political solution. Committee members investigated a range of solutions, including the idea of banning coal entirely. They traveled to Columbus Ohio and Nashville Tennessee to investigate new technologies that promised to process coal and make it clean. Seventy years later such technologies were still being deployed with limited success. They talked to miners, coal merchants, investors and even competitors such as Laclede Gas Company.

Representatives of the retail coal trade told the committee that they were worried that the panel was about to do something radical. Tucker responded that the only radicals were newspapers such as the Globe-Democrat and Star-Times, who had been urging the city to take over the coal business.  On January 14 the Globe-Democrat had been most forceful in arguing that private enterprise could no longer be trusted to solve such an important problem.

Tucker was spending a considerable amount of time telling the committee that such a move was unnecessary. Committee chairman James Ford was so worried about it that he asked for a private meeting with Publisher Joseph Pulitzer II and his editorial staff to convince the Post-Dispatch not to support the issue. While the Post-Dispatch in November had advanced similar ideas, by February it was noticeably silent on the issue.

Publicly, Ford agreed that change was afoot. He described the sentiment in St. Louis towards coal as “a violent feeling.” He added, “There has never been anything in the history of the city where there was such a united, strenuous, mandatory feeling on the part of the public that here is an evil that has to be cured.”


Railroads were contributing to the smoke pollution. Tucker Archives

Coal operators and merchants were conciliatory at times and threatening at others.

So were the railroads. In St. Louis, the 15 railroads that ran both passenger and freight cars through the city were represented by the Terminal Railroad Association. Tucker had had discussions with Philip Watson, the president of the Terminal Association, about converting the locomotives to diesel and the organization had pledged to do what it could to cooperate. But the railroads were not buying the more expensive locomotives and as a result just in the last year they had been cited for 416 violations of the smoke law.

Industry would be easier to handle, Tucker believed, because here public opinion could be levied against anyone who refused to either buy better heating equipment or cleaner fuel. “Fundamentally, the most drastic step you can take is to demand that everybody in St. Louis by a certain date use mechanical equipment or burn a smokeless fuel,” said Tucker.

By the end of January with the investigative phrase completed the committee had held 13 meetings, many lasting all day.

Two core problems still remained. One was that even if the city could get everyone to buy more expensive, cleaner fuel, it was not clear who would supply it. By now it was clear that sometime of coal or a coal byproduct that burned cleaner was the only solution. But if it did not come from the nearby coalfields of Southern Illinois, where would it come from?

Their second concern was whether the courts would back a law that required everyone to buy more expensive fuel. Their strongest argument, they believed, would be that they were protecting the health and welfare of every resident of St. Louis.

But would anyone buy that argument after living for decades with such foul air?

It remains a fair question today. Humans are poisoning the upper atmosphere, especially by burning cheap, dirty coal. There are more expensive alternatives that will stop the pollution. No one wants to switch to them. The result is that we are irrevocably changing the planet for decades to come.


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