One Year Later – St. Louis Breathes


St. Louis City Hall, while ravaged by former attacks of coal smoke, awaited the winter of 1940-41.


           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

What a difference a year can make.

Except, St. Louis was not yet prepared to accept that there yet was a difference.

Nov. 26, 1940 dawned wet, cold and most importantly, free of smoke.

A year before this date was labeled Black Tuesday for the pall of black smoke that descended upon the city. Visibility was reduced to a few feet, traffic crawled, lights burned throughout the day.

And when the people of St. Louis in November, 1940 looked back at the last few weeks, the results so far had been just as positive.

A year earlier the city had already suffered through 11 days when heavy black clouds shrouded St. Louis. There had only been five so far this year.

“During the past week St. Louis has been rubbing its eyes, crossing its fingers and saying to itself that it can’t be true,” declared the St. Louis Globe-Democrat editorially.

“The results have been almost too good to be true,” added the St. Louis Post Dispatch in an editorial the next day.

Had the city turned a corner after undergoing decades of black smoke? Had the new city ordinance requiring residents, businesses and even government to buy cleaner burning coal begun to make a difference? Were people really paying more for their heating fuel in exchange for a cleaner sky?


Was the key to the city’s cleaner skies something as basic as chunks of coal?

City officials were not commenting. Their views were noticeably absent in the stories and editorials in the city’s newspapers.

The Globe-Democrat noted that on the one-year anniversary that there had been some smoke in outlying areas including East St. Louis and University City. But the Post Dispatch said that except for the rain the weather conditions were almost identical. The wind and heating conditions were nearly identical. Rain and fog a day such as this often forced the smoke down to ground level, but that was not the case.

Despite the conditions, the newspapers were cautious.

“It is too early to say that the smoke campaign is bearing fruit,” declared the Globe-Democrat. “St. Louis, which has suffered from the smoke blight for more than 50 years, is skeptical and naturally so. Let’s wait and see and hope and keep our fingers crossed.”

Added the Post Dispatch: “Most of us are still unwilling to accept (the current weather) as conclusive. Even those most intensely interested in the campaign for clean air still keep their fingers crossed. After 50 years of winter noons as dark as midnight, St. Louis naturally finds it hard to believe its eyes.”

The task as yet, it added, was unfinished.



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