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
Hissing and steaming, Locomotive No. 4496 and its 40 cars of cargo arrived at the Grantlet rail yard in St. Louis at 9:35 a.m. It had made its 410-mile journey from Ft. Smith, Ark. in 20 hours. Waiting was a contingent of city officials, reporters, photographers and business people.
They were all there for one reason – the arrival of cleaner coal. It may have been a steamy mid-July day but many were already thinking the of heating in the coming winter.
City officials climbed onto one of the open freight cars to view the piles of coal. Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker said it was the cheapest alternative that would still burn far cleaner than what St. Louis had put up with for decades.
“This is an important event in the city,” declared James L. Ford, chairman of the Smoke Elimination Committee that had fought to convince St. Louis it needed to force its residents to buy cleaner heating fuel. “”Just as our country is arming itself for the battle which may come, so our city is arming itself with another weapon for the battle already here. I refer to the battle against smoke.”
What Ford did not mention was the other clash that had been going on for weeks. Coal interests and some railroads had fiercely fought the city’s efforts to buy the cleaner fuel from Arkansas. Illinois coal miners, having lost their previous sales of higher sulfur coal to St. Louis, were rallying to boycott St. Louis goods.
Most of the attack centered on a proposal by Frisco Railroad to deliver the Arkansas coal at $2 a ton, which was 75 cents a ton cheaper than the prevailing rate. Frisco had volunteered to undertake the lower tariff to assist in solving the St. Louis pollution problem. Other railroads and coal companies objected to the special treatment, warning that Illinois coal miners would suffer.
In late June the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission by a 2-to-1 vote approved the reduced rate.
The same day the ICC acted St. Louis aldermen authorized a $300,000 revolving fund to assist in sales to low-income residents. The fund was a contingency in case local dealers failed to stock the cleaner coal coming from Arkansas.
No one in Arkansas was worried that the fuel would not be bought. The day the first train left Ft. Smith local officials there also came to the rail yards to celebrate. The Ft. Smith Chamber of Commerce reported that an additional 500 men had been hired by local coal companies to meet the demand.
During the ceremony in St. Louis Ford urged residents to buy their fuel as early in the season as possible. Ford said prices were cheap and it was unclear how long that situation would remain and how plentiful supplies would be.
Residents “will have to buy when it is available,” he said. “I urge all consumers to lay in their supplies now.”
Yet that quickly was vanishing as an issue. Within a week after the ceremony the trainloads from Arkansas were arriving in St. Louis on a regular basis. Five retail dealers had ordered supplies and others were reported that they were about to order.
It was in sharp contrast to earlier warnings from the dealers, who complained that prices were going to be so low they could not turn a profit. By September so much coal had been delivered that coal stocks were greater in St. Louis than they had been in years.
The issue of coal supply had vanished as rapidly as smoke rising from a fire. But would the St. Louis winter coal smoke disappear as quickly?