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. A public hearing on March 26 drew 400 people with broad support except from the coal industry.
By Bob Wyss
More than 300 protesters arrived at St. Louis City Hall before noon on April 5.
They were coal dealers, operators and miners. The Board of Aldermen was about to debate and then vote on the smoke ordinance. The crowd was demanding that the plan be sent back to committee and killed.
Trucks were parked near the Market Street side of the City Hall displaying banners denouncing the ordinance. One said “The Alderman May Pass This Bill, But the Public Will Foot It.” The second declared “New Coal Smoke at Higher Prices.” On that truck were three stoves, burning what was purported to be the cleaner, more expensive coal favored by proponents of the ordinance. Smoke was pouring from each of the stoves.
Victor Packman, a lawyer representing local coal dealers, urged the city not to pass the ordinance. “There is no emergency,” he said. This is summer and the bill does not have to be rushed through to meet any critical situation.”
The boisterous throng marched into City Hall and squeezed into the second floor Aldermen’s Chamber. The swarm was raucous, sometimes drowning out the city representatives as they spoke. Finally everyone was warned that police were going to be called to clear the gallery. For awhile, that quieted the crowd.
One amendment was offered, from Alderman Joseph Schweppe, in response to a request from the city’s railroads.
At the hearing the week before Philip Watson, president of the Terminal Railroad Association, had warned that some accommodation should be made to allow trains to continue to burn coal in their locomotives. Now, the association was playing hardball. In a letter delivered to each member of the board, the association warned that unless an amendment was made the association would challenge the ordinance in court.
“It is well known that there are no devices available for locomotives which will burn bituminous coal without emitting some smoke,” he said. Watson added that complying with the ordinance could cost its members $800,000 a year.
The surprise amendment passed 21 to 7. Then, as the catcalls and boos grew, aldermen prepared to vote. Only one alderman stood to protest the full ordinance.
Thomas V. Walsh complained that the ordinance would harm the city’s poor. “I know it will be a great hardship for the people of my ward,” he said. “During the blackest days my people were warm and well clothed. If you pass this bill you will deprive them of some of these comforts because they will have to use some of this money to pay the increased price for coal. The bill is impossible to enforce, there is nothing in it but a command to obey.”
No one else spoke and the voting began. It passed 28 to 1.
Normally the ordinance would need another reading and vote but the board had suspended its normal rules so that it could go directly to Mayor Bernard Dickmann for his signature.
Afterwards Dickmann said he was pleased that the bill had been passed but he was not happy about the amendment permitted for the railroads.
Dickmann intended to sign it at a ceremony at 4:30 that afternoon.
It didn’t happen. By then, the entire plan was in danger of collapse.,