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
From darkness into light.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch with that headline formally declared victory over air pollution in a special multipage Sunday report.
“A great city has washed its face,” wrote Sam Shelton, the reporter who had been responsible for most of the coverage over the last 15 months. “St. Louis is no longer the grimy old man of American municipalities.” The “plague of smoke and soot” had been wiped away after a century in “a dramatic story of intelligent, courageous and co-operative effort.”
No longer did residents have to endure “burning throats, hacking coughs, smarting eyes, sooty faces and soiled clothing.”
The story told in detail how the city was spurred to action after the sky had darkened so dramatically on Nov. 26, 1939, how a citizens group had researched the issue and recommended a ban on the soft coal that was creating most of the pollution.
Besides Shelton’s main story there were several pages featuring photos, guest columns and other stories.
“Common Sense Won the Battle,” headlined a column in the special section by James L. Ford who had headed the Smoke Elimination Committee. “Common sense told us that if no smoke was created there would be no smoke,” he wrote. “We checked the problem at the source and tried to make the solution foolproof.
Mayor Bernard Dickmann also wrote a column in the section in which he emphasized that his goal from the beginning had been not just to reduce the degree of pollution but to eliminate it.
There were also photographs, many spread over several pages graphically showing how the skyline had looked in the past and what it looked like now. And to emphasize that not everyone had yet learned the lesson, there were photos of both St. Louis and East St. Louis taken the same day and hour. The St. Louis air was clear, East St. Louis was dark and cloudy because the city had yet to enact a strict ban on the soft coal.
Publisher Joseph Pulitzer II had authorized the massive spread that proclaimed the battle was won. In some respects, it seemed very premature. Most of the city’s pollution in the past occurred during the winter from household heating, and spring was still six weeks away. Plus, city officials had warned that it might take several years to truly bring the smoke situation under control.
Yet the winter had been so clear that everyone was bragging about the quality of the air.
Plus the newspapers, led by the Post-Dispatch with strong support from the rival dailies the Globe-Democrat and Star-Times, had strongly supported the campaign for the last 15 months. Stories ran virtually daily in one or more of the newspapers, often accompanied by hard-hitting editorials with many editorial cartoons by the Post-Dispatch’s Daniel Fitzpatrick. It was a classic newspaper campaign.
It was about this time that Pulitzer and his top aides began making decisions on what stories to nominate for various journalism awards, including the top prize named after his father. Pulitzer did not decide until rather late to nominate the smoke campaign for a Pulitzer and then he proposed it for the key award, for public service.
Two months later Columbia University, which was the trustee for the Pulitzer Prizes, announced that the Post-Dispatch had won the award for public service. Journalism historians say it is the first time that a major award was conferred for an environmental story.
Clearly the air over St. Louis had not been the only winner.