400 Offer Mixed Messages to St. Louis

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

Finally, it was time for the public to speak.

On this day, 75 years ago, more than 400 people came to St. Louis City Hall for a public hearing on the city’s Smoke Elimination Committee plan and ordinance that would require virtually everyone to stop burning soft coal.

Only an hour was provided for each side.

Opponents were virtually all representatives of the coal industry.

Supporters represented a wide range of interests in the city.


Coal interests wanted to preserve coal – Tucker Archive

Coal representatives said that the plan would be too costly to residents and business and that coal and the smoke it produced was safe.

“Thousands of men in fire rooms and boiler rooms in the city breathe pure coal smoke and have no higher mortality rate than other men,” said George W. Curran, president of Curran Coal Co. “You’d be surprised at some of the conditions you’d find. It’s easy to get doctors to give statements about the injurious effects of smoke with the press lauding them and patting them on the shoulders.”

Supporters of the cleanup plan responded that it was necessary, long over due, and would save lives.

“If we had a blackout today of the kind which we are all too familiar, we wouldn’t need scientific authority to tell us that the smoke is injurious to breathe and its effects costly to clean away,” said Wilbur B. Jones of the Chamber of Commerce. “St. Louis of the future will look back on this discussion as we look back at the time, nearly four decades ago, when people argued the question whether our drinking water could be cleared of its mud. It is as important now to rid St. Louis of the plague of smoke as it was then to clean our water supply.”

Coal officials, both at the hearing and in recent days, had been arguing they would have great difficulty obtaining the type of cleaner coal the city was demanding and that the cost would be more than the poor could afford.

Richard F. Wood, executive director of the Solid Fuel Institute, said the additional cost would amount to $10 million a year, which in today’s costs would be more than $167 million.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an editorial suggested that Wood had either been “grossly misled” about the true cost of the plan. They further charged that they feared he was engaging in a “campaign of misrepresentation” which would have to be dealt with “in the most forceful manner possible.”

J.A. Wolf, who ran Neighborhood House that helped low-income families, said that the poor were not afraid of the ordinance. He said the measure would be of immense value because it would end air pollution in many of the city’s most congested areas.

E.B. Langenberg, a heating engineer who had sat on a previous smoke elimination board, said the public supported the measure because coal officials “haven’t made a move” to help end the air pollution.

“You can’t keep a building clean now unless you paint it every three months,” he added. “The boiler and furnace industries are in line (in their support). Cities all over the country are moving towards smoke elimination; this bill is the first constructive step here. It is time for our coal men to wake up.”

Other groups supporting the measure ranged from civic groups including the General Council on Civic Needs, the College Club, the Lindenwood Improvement Association and the board of realtors. Several local physicians also spoke in favor.


Railroads were a strong presence in St Louis – Tucker Archives

One group came out with a mixed verdict. Philip J. Watson, representing the Terminal Railroad Association which represented the many rail companies that ran through the city, said his group supported most of the plan. However, Watson said that the trains should not be required to shift from coal to other fuels such as diesel because the cost of $1 million would be prohibitive.

“The railroads contribute only a minimum part of the problem, as shown by the fact that there is no smoke nuisance in summer, though the railroads operate then just as in the winter,” said Watson.

At the, no one knew just how important that comment would be.

At the conclusion of the hearing members of the Board of Aldermen indicated that the Public Safety Committee would meet in the next few days and consider the ordinance.

The stage was now set. The skies might be more clear with the warmer weather but the rhetoric was about to cloud St. Louis.


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