Unhealthiest City Gets a Plan

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.  A  Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air.  As February continued, the city waited for the committee’s report.

By Bob Wyss

Finally, at the end of February, the city learned its fate.

The Smoke Elimination Committee issued a 31-page report that was published across the front page of all three newspapers warning that to rid the city of its black smoke each winter it was going to have to pay more to heat homes and run its industry.


The plan promised air such as this in St. Louis would leave. – Tucker Archives

All furnaces, stoves and power plants should be required to burn only smokeless fuel or they would have to install new equipment to mechanically feed fuel into boilers, the report said.

The options for so-called smokeless fuel would range from low sulfur coal to coke and other byproducts that could be manufactured from the cheap high-sulfur coal that nearby Illinois coal dealers had been supplying to St. Louis customers.  The mechanical option for most meant installing stokers.

The report stated that the black smoke that seemed to greet St. Louis every winter was “unbearable” and that is jeopardized the city’s “health, financial welfare and good living conditions.”

James L. Ford, the local banker who had headed the smoke elimination committee, issued a letter that accompanied the report that said what would be needed next would be legislation from the city to adopt the recommendations and assistance from neighboring cities.  If that happened, he said “this evil” could be stricken from the city.

As the St. Louis Globe-Democrat pointed out, similar recommendations had been made five years earlier and then ignored by the city.

The Smoke Elimination Committee said if its recommendations were adopted the city would begin to see some relief by the next winter and an elimination of the smoke within two to three years.

Anticipating that the transition to the new, more expensive fuel might be rocky, the report recommended that the city be allowed to buy, sell and distribute the new fuel if private vendors were unable to carry out the task.


Railroads were told to do their part. – Tucker Archieves

It also called on the railroads to do their part to eliminate the fumes coal-fired locomotives were causing in the city, although it did not spell out how that would occur.

The report also took a shot at the city’s public schools, reporting that during the winter many of the schools seemed to be the worst offenders in producing smoke.  While there were legal questions on whether city government could force the politically independent school board to comply with these recommendations, the report said this “should not be raised. The schools should voluntarily conform.”

The report also rejected five other ideas that had been bandied about, especially in the newspapers, over the last three months.  These included:

  • Rejecting the need for a municipally owned and operated plant that would process coal and produce a smokeless fuel. The committee concluded that there was no need for the government to take over a private system of business.
  • An education program to teach residents how to improve combustion and curb the smoke they were producing. Education programs had been tried in the past, with limited success.
  • Subsidizing the price of the fuel in order to make it more acceptable to the public.
  • Replacing the coal by using more heating oil or natural gas. Neither fuel had the capacity at this time to replace coal.
  • Building a district heating system that would supply steam to commercial, industrial and residential customers. The cost would have been enormous and time consuming.

The committee report conceded that the new smokeless fuel would be more expensive.  But it also argued that this type of fuel was more efficient and long-lasting than the smoky coal most customers were using.

All three newspapers gave the report extensive coverage. The Post-Dispatch headline declared “Plan to Rid City of Smoke in 3 Years is Presidented by Citizens’ Committee,” the Globe-Democrat said “Mayor’s Committee for Smokeless Fuel Law” and the Star-Times reported “Six-Way Attack on Smoke Evil Called for in Mayor’s Committee.”

Finally, a plan had been devised.  The question now was whether it would be embraced or rejected.  That answer would begin to come clear almost immediately.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s