What Is The Price For Clean Air?

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

In November 1940 Barney Dickmann, who had been mayor of St. Louis for eight years, was told it was time he left City Hall for good.

That message was not delivered by opposition Republicans but some of Dickmann’s once loyal Democratic supporters. A “Stop Dickmann” movement was begun. Campaigners argued that only a Democrat who was isolated and clean of the city’s well-oiled political machine could best topple whoever the Republicans put up in March.

That wasn’t the only reason they were worried.

The city campaign that had forced businesses and residents to buy more expensive but cleaner coal to power industry and heat homes had been wildly successful. As the days began now to get warmer and winter began to lose its grasp of St. Louis everyone agreed that the air had never been so clean.


St. Louis City Hall

The Weather Bureau would later confirm that overall visibility in St. Louis had been reduced from Sept. 1 to April 1 by 72 percent.

But there was also a great deal of anger from those individuals who Democrats especially counted on for votes – residents with reduced or low incomes.

Prices for coal in many of these neighborhoods had doubled. The Worker’s Alliance and the St. Louis Council of American Youth Congress called the increase a cruel joke.

Many blamed Dickmann. One citizen said in a letter to the editor to one of the newspapers that the poor may have been defeated, and may have to freeze or at the very least remain undernourished because of the neglect of city officials. But, he added, “they will be felt if not heard at election time and Dickmann minus the support of the poor equals no third term.”

In the primary election scheduled for March 7 Dickmann was opposed by two other Democrats. Even if he could prevail over opponents Lee Meriwether, a retired lawyer, or George Saenger, he faced a more formidable challenge from the Republicans.

In particular he would have to face the wrath of William Dee Becker, a retired judge of the St. Louis Court of Appeals. Becker opened his campaign by vowing to “clean out the boss-ridden City Hall.”

Becker and other Republicans were especially incensed about how Dickmann had been involved in an attempt the previous year to thwart the Republican governor from taking office.

But Becker also pledged to do more to help the poor buy coau

At a forum a week before the primary election virtually all of the candidates including Dickmann said they favored doing more. But while Becker said he had a plan, Dickmann said he had long studied the issue and a clear answer was still not available.

That did not sit well with many voters.


Scenes such as this had disappeared in St. Louis –  Tucker Archives

As the polls opened on March 7 questions remained about Barney Dickmann’s future. Residents in the city’s third ward awoke to find an effigy of Dickmann hanging from a utility line in the neighborhood. A sign attached to it declared: “Mayor Dickmann Gone With the Wind.”

No one seemed that disturbed. One passerby who walked by exclaimed, “Why it’s good old Barney!”

And yet many wondered, was this a precursor to Dickmann’s fall?



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