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
“St. Louis is the ugliest city of its size in America.”
Harry Salpeter, a freelance writer for several major publications of the day, made that comment in an essay published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the gloomy, dark winter of 1939-40.
It was hard to argue against him. Salpeter laid the blame for St. Louis’ blight on one reason – the coal smoke that was darkening the sky so many days this winter 75 years ago.
A New Yorker, Salpeter made his observations after having been visiting in St. Louis on business during a recent two week period. He said he was still trying “to cough the filthy smoke of St. Louis out of my lungs.”
He said every American city had dirt behind its ears, but St. Louis had dirt all over it. “It breaths smoke as if it were an element in which only it could live, as if it had created for itself, by a form of accelerated Darwinian adaptation, a pair of lungs which had found the breath of untreated bituminous tolerable, instead of foul and deleterious.”
In riding through the city he noticed that block after block of once prosperous houses and commercial buildings seemed to be falling into disrepair and neglect. Perhaps it was not the smoke that was the cause, but he was having difficulty finding more compelling reasons.
He continued: “St Louis, within the pall of its smoke, has the look of a beaten, discouraged city, the look of a city which had been built on large and generous lines by a generation which has already passed on, a city which is not contracting in discouragement and defeat, through the indifference and perhaps the greed of those members of the community who find it easier to run away from smoke than to purify it.”
“I do not say that smoke is the only cause of the stagnant look that is so characteristic of the city. But smoke is the pervasive thing that I see, smell, breathe and cough. It is not only a thing, it is almost the quality of St. Louis.”
Salpeter said he understood that St. Louis had a smoke commissioner. In a statement sure to rattle the city political establishment including Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker, he said what the city needed was an anti-smoke commissioner. It needed the political establishment to get serious.
St. Louis was getting used to such criticism by now. The question was what was it going to do about it?