Cold Arrives But What’s Missing?

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

And then, finally, came the cold.

But not the smoke

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All of St. Louis, even those meeting a train at Union Station, waited as the cold began to arrive for the city’s spate of coal smoke.

The first cold snap arrived Oct. 10. The sky over St. Louis was clear, while smoke covered much of East St. Louis across the river, which had no ban on dirty coal. Slowly the smoke drifted on a westerly breeze into downtown St. Louis.

The East St. Louis smoke returned again to downtown the morning of Nov. 8.

But the real test arrived Nov. 11 and continued for five days when a 63 miles per hour gale struck St. Louis. It brought with it the coldest temperature the city had seen this early in the season since record keeping began in 1873. The average was 26.4 degrees, which was 4.3 degrees below the mean expected in mid-January.

This time there was no westerly breeze and no smoke from East St. Louis.

Everyone noticed the clear skies.

A resident wrote the mayor’s office to report that the new, more expensive but clear coal did make life easier. He no longer had to clean the range before his wife baked, he did not have to worry about blackening his neighbors clothes drying on a line when the wind blew, and the coal was so much higher quality that he could bank it so it could last all night.

He called it “a wonderful fuel that helps us in every way.”

Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker said calls to his office had virtually ceased, except for a few complaints about the price.

The winter blooming witch hazel at Shaw’s Garden was bright yellow. In past years blossoms had turned a dirty, rusting brown.

While it was a good beginning, neither Tucker or James L. Ford, who had chaired the Smoke Elimination Committee, were ready to declare that the heavy blankets of smoke would not return.

For decades people in St. Louis and other cities throughout the U.S. and Europe had contended that the noxious clouds of smoke from coal were the price that had to be paid. No one, they argued would either pay more to heat their homes or runs their businesses. No one would put pollution controls on their boilers or machinery or pay a higher price for coal.

But St. Louis was proving that it could be done.

Tucker estimated that as many as 5,000 dwellings around the city had installed stokers that produced fewer emissions, or had converted to oil burners.

Plus, many buying the more expensive coal was discovering that Turner was right – its BTU content was far greater. The same amount of clean coal would burn more than two times longer than the dirtier coal St. Louis had used for years.


This type of smoke from trains passing through St. Louis had been more common each winter. Photo Tucker Archive, Washington University

There were a few problems.

The city was allowing any leftover coal from the year before to be burned. But by the November cold snap Tucker said those supplies were pretty much gone.

Some residents did not understand how to use the stokers or other mechanical equipment. A smoky chimney often drew the attention of one of Tucker’s 13 smoke inspectors, and would lead to a lesson in how to use a stoker.

Inspectors were also out searching for what were being described as coal bootleggers, dealers selling coal that would burn so dirty that it was illegal. Tucker indicated he had no plans to reduce enforcement and that he hoped to hire more inspectors.

Not surprisingly, the poor seemed to be paying more than anyone else, at least proportionately.

A basket of coal that last winter had cost 20 cents was now double the price. Tucker’s inspection staff could not do much about the price, but they were rigidly inspecting the baskets to make sure a city requirement of 80 pounds per basket.

The Workers Alliance, which advocated for the poor, began calling for the city to lift the restrictions on coal, at least for residents on relief and the WPA rolls.

Tucker agreed that he believed the poor were paying too much. But he gave no indication that he was going to back down in insisting that everyone needed to contribute to cleaner skies.

By Nov. 16 the cold snap began to lift.   By mid afternoon it was 50 degrees and sunny. No one wanted to complain about that.


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