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. Its report in late February proposed that all residents and businesses buy more expensive fuel that caused less pollution. The question now was whether the city government, and then the city’s residents, would comply.
By Bob Wyss
One would think that if a solution was found to a problem that was harming vast numbers and costing virtually everyone more money that it would be immediately embraced.
But that is not the way politics can work.
In St. Louis 75 years ago there was absolutely no guarantee that the city was going to accept an ambitious plan by a civic group created by the mayor. The plan called for eliminating the air pollution that had haunted for decades, but the fuel to carry out the plan was going to cost more.
Still, reactions did vary in the days after the report was released.
Mayor Bernard Dickmann announced immediately after the report was issued that he would prepare the necessary ordinances and he was supremely confident that the Board of Aldermen would approve them.
While some inconveniences were inevitable for the people of St. Louis, Dickmann said, “I am sure by this time they all realize that such inconvenience and expense will be insignificant as compared with the tremendous savings that will be affected, not only in money, but in comfort and health, by the elimination of the smoke nuisance.”
As a Democrat, Dickman had every right to expect the board controlled by the Democrats to heed to his wishes.
But even the president of the board, William L. Mason, was qualified in his support and warned that many of the impacts should be delayed for as long as possible for local residents.
Alderman Phelim O’Toole said that he would have to be shown that the cost of the fuel was not prohibitive for residents in his district.
Alderman Hubert Hoeflinger said that the city would need to convince residents that a more expensive smokeless fuel was in their best interest. “The problem is to convince ‘the little man’ it is much cheaper for him in the long run to buy the higher priced coal,” he said.
Alderman Thomas V. Walsh said he was going to discuss the report with his constituents before he took any position on what should be done.
Meanwhile the newspapers had made up their minds – and their editorials indicated they wanted action.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was the most bullish, delivering an editorial headlined “We Are on Our Way.” It called the report a “remarkable document. It is clear, thorough, realistic, beautiful and calmly reasoned.”
“This is good news – excellent news,” it continued. “Just as a man who, after dreaming for years of building a home for his family, finally engages an architect to draw a set of blueprints, so St. Louis at last reached the blueprint stage of smoke elimination.”
The St.Louis Globe-Democrat was also pleased with the report, especially the Smoke Elimination Committee’s decision that more than a strong education program would be needed to teach residents how to burn coal more effectively so that they did not produce smoke. But it was disappointed that a municipally run plant to produce cleaner coal through coke or other products was rejected.
One of the strongest endorsements came from the board of directors of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce which said the group would do “everything within its power” to get the resolution passed.
Getting the business community on board was critical. In many ways the fight that St. Louis engaged in 75 years ago is very similar to how the U.S. is grappling with cutting back its emissions that are creating global warming. One of the biggest opponents has been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But in St. Louis there were still other parties to hear from, including the coal suppliers and merchants and the railroads that depended on coal. Even their silence at this stage was ominous.