Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.
By Bob Wyss
The coal smoke that had often smothered St. Louis was starting to be recognized across the country now that the city was striving to get rid of it.
The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, a city that often struggled with coal smoke, took note of what was taking place up the river in Missouri. “Results of the St. Louis war on smog will be watched with keen interest through the coming winter by dozens, perhaps hundreds of cities plagued by smoke-caused fogs that tend to grow worse from year to year,” the newspaper reported in August. “The St. Louis experience may help us to a more accurate measure of the extent of coal smoke’s contribution to our own occasional winter blackouts.”
How big of a problem was air pollution from coal in the early decades of the 20th century?
Great enough that on an annual basis about 100 representatives from throughout America’s Midwest and East convened to discuss the problem. In May these municipal smoke abatement experts were in St. Louis for the Smoke Abatement Association conference.
Reinhold Kunz of Milwaukee, president of the organization, said that law enforcement measures to control the smoke had replaced the group’s past emphasis on technology solutions. Cities now had the technical means to control the problem, he said, the question was whether they had the will.
“Enforcement of essential and suitable installations to prevent air pollution is now the objective,” he said.
Southern Illinois coal officials had so far responded to the efforts by St. Louis with calls to end those efforts or face a boycott. But nationally coal officials seemed more receptive to the efforts.
“It is decidedly to the benefit of the coal industry to help solve the smoke problem,” said W.E.E. Koepler, secretary of the Pocahontas Operators’ Association of Bleufield, W.V. “We cannot afford not to face the smoke nuisance. It more than a nuisance, it is a poison. It will be a poison to the coal trade if it is not fairly dealt with promptly.”
Some coal operators were beginning to welcome the St. Louis effort because many had cleaner burning fuel that they could sell to the city.
Southern Illinois needed to embrace change, not fight it, according to J. D. A. Morrow, president of the Pittsburgh Coal Co., one of the nation’s largest coal producers at the time. In a letter around the same time as of the smoke convention was meeting in St. Louis, Morrow predicted that Southern Illinois coal dealers would eventually embrace the changes demanded by St. Louis.
“As soon as they are satisfied that you really intend to have a smokeless city they will accommodate themselves to the conditions in the St. Louis market with their usual facility and skill,” Morrow wrote in a letter to local officials that was released to the newspapers.
Coal producers could promote stoves and boilers that more efficiently burned their high sulfur coal, he said. Or they could build processing plants to produce briquettes or other smokeless fuels.
Others nationally began to ask pointed questions about what was taking place in St. Louis
Howard A. Gray, director of the U.S. Bituminous Coal Division, summoned the two sides to Washington to sort out whether the federal government should step into the dispute.
Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann said St. Louis had an emergency situation from the smoke pollution and was well within its rights to demand that cleaner fuels be sold in the city.
But Clarence V. Beck, president of the St. Louis Coal Co., said the city had overdramatized the so-called “smoke evil.” A representative for the Southern Illinois miner’s union warned that the ban on soft coal was going to harm the industry and cause many miners to lose their jobs.
As early as April, when talk of an Illinois boycott had surfaced, St. Louis had asked officials in the anti-trust division of the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the legality of the boycott. Justice officials instead urged the two sides to try and work together, although they also agreed to monitor the situation.
By August as the boycott activity became more active those Justice officials were becoming more interested. But a true interference of interstate trade was not yet in effect, said James M. Henderson, special assistant to Atty. Gen. Robert H. Jackson. He promised a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he would continue to watch the situation closely.
The prospects were growing that it was going to be a quite different winter in St. Louis.