St. Louis Nears a Costly Decision

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 and into February the committee continued to meet.

By Bob Wyss

Today, Feb. 5, 1940, 75 years ago, the Smoke Elimination Committee held its 14th and final meeting before preparing its recommendations for cleaning up St. Louis.

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Decisions were being made at St. Louis City Hall — Wyss photo

Everyone knew that change in the current way homes were heated and industry was run was inevitable. The key question was, how much was it going to cost each citizen of St. Louis? How great was going to be the financial pain?

A few days before the meeting Sam Shelton, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer assigned to the story, interviewed committee chairman James N. Ford Jr. Then he wrote a memo to his bosses, estimating that a report might be ready by mid February.

The solution, Shelton said in the memo, would come down to two options. One would be to buy equipment that was more efficient in burning coal, such as automatic stokers that fed coal into boilers. The second would be to purchase material that produced less smoke, either byproducts of coal or cleaner burning coal.

Prices for such fuel were up to $7.15 a ton. That was substantially higher than what many paid now, where prices could vary from $2 to $4.50 a ton. Ford was confident that the volume for the new coal would be so high that suppliers would be willing to lower their price, although it would still be higher than $4.50 a ton.

While many had been calling for the city to take over the collection and distribution of fuel, Ford was hoping that would not be necessary. Still, it was likely that some type of city-run organization would be set up, if necessary, to be used “as a club to compel dealer cooperation.”

When the committee met on Feb. 5 most members agreed on the same lines as Ford had predicted from his conversation with Shelton.

Prices would come down, Ford said at the meeting. Already the committee had been told of suppliers willing to sell at $5.50 a ton. “We can substantiate the fact that $5.50 is as cheap as $4 for coal on account of the thermal efficiency of it,” said Ford at the meeting.

But would people accept that, committee members wondered.

Ford thought they would. “We have three cardinal principles – health, property values and good living.”

What he did not say is that for decades price had trumped all three of these principles.

It is also no different than today where despite the growing dangers of climate change millions of people continue to support using coal over more expensive alternatives.

The committee adjourned, with Ford and two others agreeing to meet the next day to begin working on the report, the one that all of St. Louis awaited. It would take weeks, not days, before it was released.

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