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. On April 5 the city Board of Alderman adopted an ordinance requiring that clean coal be burned next winter.
By Bob Wyss
The eruption began almost immediately after the crowd cleared out of the Aldermen’s Chamber. James Ford, the chairman of the Smoke Elimination Committee, warned Dickmann that the Terminal Railroad Association amendment was too far-reaching. Dickmann quickly agreed.
Joseph Schweppe ,who had offered the amendment, also said he did not comprehend the magnitude of his change until he started getting calls from other Aldermen. It is likely that Dickmann, and perhaps Ford and Tucker, began the arm twisting.
By Saturday morning, less than 24 hours after the Aldermen had approved the ordinance, it was clear that the Terminal Association amendment was dead. The railroads were suddenly the city’s biggest enemy. Dickmann announced he would not sign the ordinance and that he was calling the Aldermen back into session Monday to reconsider the amendment. Schweppe said he would ask the board to rescind it.
Dickmann, in a statement that grew more incensed with each sentence, said that the city has been having “trouble with the Terminal for 30 years and this is nothing new. I look upon it simply as another obstructionist tactic by it.” Ralph Coghlan in his St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial, “The Terminal’s Sneaky Trick”, rose to his highest level of invective. He said that for 40 years the railroad organization had throttled progress in the city. “It has been the city’s most backward, most reactionary, most selfish and most offensively contentious single agency,” he wrote. “Well, the terminal has for too long been getting away with murder in this town. This is the end.” The Globe-Dispatch was nearly as irate, declaring in an editorial Sunday, April 7 that “what happened in the Board of Aldermen Friday reveals the Terminal in an old, old role, that of civic saboteur.”
What had happened? The Terminal Association and its president Philip Watson, had miscalculated. The railroad consortium, with its colorful history dating back to the days of ferryboats, had long had its way in the city. But, the railroads were losing power. Watson was new to the city, bewildered by the outrage the association had provoked, and he was unable to control the resulting firestorm.
His failure to comprehend was understandable. The railroads, and in particular the steam engine that ran each train, had long been inextricably tied to coal. While James Watt, the son of a Scottish carpenter, is credited with popularizing the steam engine in the 18th Century he actually capitalized on inventions created a century before. Thomas Newcomen in the 1860s developed a steam-driven piston engine that pumped water out of coal mines, dramatically expanding where the industry could go underground. However, the machinery used huge quantities of coal, making it impractical outside of a mine until Watt’s adjustments 100 years later. Steam engines led to new ways to manufacture goods and the steam-powered locomotives then moved those products to more markets.
English trains ran on coal but surprisingly American trains resisted, preferring wood. These trains ran cleaner but they had a serious handicap – they produced sparks that soon were igniting the countryside. The late 19th Century most American locomotives had converted to coal although the engine and cars were noticeably more grimy from the black coal soot.
By World War I the country’s Class 1 Railroads were consuming 135 million tons of coal a year. No one knew it at the time, but that turned out to be the peak year of usage for the railroads, although one year during World War II the railroads did come close by using 132 million tons. During the 1920s and 30s many railroads began switching to either diesel or electric. Also, by 1940 they were beginning to lose freight traffic to trucking firms and passengers to automobiles and soon the airplane.
The terminal association and its railroads had not only misunderstood their standing in the city, but also hastened their political demise in St. Louis. Soon the city was talking to them about moving the tracks by the riverfront onto land that would eventually feature the famous Gateway to the West arch that today characterizes St. Louis.