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
Air pollution, soot, coal smoke usually do not generate 72-point headlines in newspapers or screaming in posts on digital news outlets.
But in 1940 coal and its smoke was big news in all three of the newspapers in St. Louis, but especially in the Post-Dispatch.
The news staff was no longer the domain of Oliver “O.K.” Bovard, but it certainly still bore many of the characteristics of the legendary managing editor. Bovard had joined the Post-Dispatch in 1898 in unusual circumstances. He was working for a rival newspaper that would not publish a story Bovard had uncovered about municipal corruption involving a contract with a streetcar company. He brought it to the Post-Dispatch, which agreed not only to publish it, but to also hire Bovard.
By 1908 he was managing editor, a post he would serve for 30 years. At the height of the Depression, he was earning $70,000 a year, far more than any other news editor, because Publisher Joseph Pulitzer II valued Bovard so greatly. Bovard’s greatest achievement was to help guide the investigation of the Teapot dome scandal, which linked Interior Secretary Albert Fall with a $230,000 bribe.
By 1939 when the Post-Dispatch smoke campaign began the newspaper newsroom managing editor was Benjamin Harrison Reese, once described by Time magazine as a 6-foot, 4-inche Missourian. He ran his staff in the same tradition as Bovard. While many reporters contributed to the campaign, there was only one who was designated as the “smoke editor” and that was Sam J. Shelton.
Shelton joined the newspaper in 1913 as a general assignment reporter, served as an Army sergeant during World War I, and over the years had covered a range of stories including pieces about kidnapping, blackmailers and graft. He was best known for his investigation of the Union Electric Co., the utility, whose headquarters were directly across the street from the Post-Dispatch. Shelton had disclosed over a two-year period that utility bosses had a $525,000 slush fund that was used to bribe politicians. That investigation would eventually result in the jailing of two of the corrupt legislators.
By 1939 Shelton was one of the newspaper’s stars. He was the only reporter who received an invitation to interview Tom Pendergast, the political boss of Kansas Cit, who was on his way to prison in 1939.
The smoke campaign had the hallmarks of a late 20th Century environmental story at a time when environmental issues were scarcely noticed. Shelton was increasingly becoming interested in conservation issues, and he would soon begin taking on stories about the Missouri Valley Authority, which was modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority.
In 1945 he became the personal assistant to the publisher and later he would write for the editorial page. He retired in 1957. By then a son, also named Sam Shelton, had joined the staff of the Post-Dispatch, and he stayed nearly as long as his father, including a long stint as city editor.
The Post-Dispatch would also be drawn into more environmental stories, although not by design. On March 25, 1947 an explosion at the Centralia Coal Company’s Mine No. 5 near Centralia, Ill. trapped 142 minors and 111 of them died. Miners had warned that the mine was a hazard just two years earlier.
The mine was only 65 miles east of St. Louis. The Post-Dispatch coverage of Centralia would earn it one of its five Pulitzer Prizes during this era.
Coal was a big story, as we were only beginning to understand.