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 three men were amazed. On the night of Jan. 27, 1941 they had driven through East St. Louis, darkened by low-level clouds of black smoke. Then they crossed the river into St. Louis.
The air cleared.
“I am truly amazed at what we found here,” said J. H. Alexander. “When we drove through East St. Louis last night we thought we were back in Pittsburgh.”
Alexander was director of public health in Pittsburgh. He had come to St. Louis with two Pittsburgh newspaper reporters to find out more about how this Missouri community was solving its air pollution problems.
They were not alone.
St. Louis officials would keep a list of the inquiries and visits from other cities around the nation. By mid-February it would have the names of 83 cities from Atlanta to Zanesville and from Attleboro on the East Coast to Berkeley on the Pacific.
Perhaps no one needed the relief more than Pittsburgh. Since the first iron and steel furnaces began blasting in Pittsburgh, the city was famous for the shroud of pollution that often covered it.
As far back as 1818 a visitor to Pittsburgh had remarked that “even the complexion of the people is affected by smoke.” Laundry merchants boasted that Pittsburgh was the greatest city in the world. By the early 20th Century Pittsburgh led the nation in death by pneumonia.
Alexander, the Pittsburgh health official, met for an hour with St. Louis Mayor Bernard Dickmann and then told reporters the city has been looking for years for guidance from other air pollution programs.
“The St. Louis program is the one that has given satisfactory results, and I believe we could do no better than to adopt a similar program,” Alexander said. “St. Louis now is unquestionably out of the ranks of the five dirtiest cities in the nation.”
Others agreed. A delegation from Salt Lake City included an engineer who had been stationed in St. Louis 12 years earlier. “There is no comparison between then and now,” said William Butler, chief smoke abatement engineer in Salt Lake.
Cities such as Des Moines, Iowa began to ask St. Louis officials to come and describe how they had been so successful. Newspapers and magazines nationally were reporting on the success in St. Louis.
Business Week magazine’s “Smog-Less St. Louis” article said that the city had won a 50-year battle to control its air pollution. “St. Louis Sees the Sky” ran the headline in the Cincinnati Post. “Birmingham Congratulates St. Louis,” proclaimed the Birmingham News.
Not everyone came away impressed.
Robert Fredericks, the public service commissioner in Memphis, Tenn. visited and told other city officials when he returned home that St. Louis had exaggerated its success. St. Louis, he said, still had too much smoke.
Buildings, streets and sidewalks were “not only unsightly as far as needing painting or washing but there seems to be an accumulation of soot and dirt in front and around most of them,” he said.
Others that year and in later years would express similar views. Some represented the coal industry, others simply maintained contrarian views. Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker, who would go on to become mayor of St. Louis, would encounter such skepticism for years. Each time it occurred he would marshal the facts to document how year after year the city’s air was cleaner.
The very fact that 83 communities throughout the U.S. and Canada were inquiring about what was going on in St. Louis was proof enough for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the task was succeeding.
“Having assumed this national leadership, it must be maintained,” the newspaper reported. “The remaining problems must be resolved. There must be no backsliding.”