About bobwyss

Bob Wyss is a Journalism Professor Emeritus at the University of Connecticut and a freelance writer. He has written three books and thousands of newspaper and magazine stories during his career..

The Sales Campaign Is Launched

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 does it take to convince everyone in a city to spend more money to stay warm in the winter?


The campaign was directed from St. Louis City Hall which even today still bears the scars of pollution. Photo by Bob Wyss

A massive public relations campaign in the summer.

The campaign was primarily led by city Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker with strong support from all three of the city’s newspapers, but especially the Post-Dispatch, and also the city’s radio stations.

Asked to spend more to end decades of pollution, the response was an overwhelming yes.

“In my opinion, smoke elimination in St. Louis is the most important happening since the filtration of water,” said H.C. Hartkoff, president of the Cass Bank and Trust Co. of St. Louis, in a public letter. “I hope that the new ordinance now in effect will show visible effects this coming winter.”

Tucker began his campaign with a Clean Air Exposition hosted by his office and the local Chamber of Commerce. Merchants and dealers of natural gas, heating oil, heaters, boilers and related stokers, as well as coal products with reduce emissions, set up booths to hawk their products.

So did Tucker, whose booth showed films of how his office would be operating and enforcing the city’s new ordinance to reduce coal smoke. Newspapers published advertisements and large spreads in the Sunday magazines and Tucker also was granted air time on the radio stations. He used it to interview various fuel dealers. He was trying to educate the public as much as he could.

While the audience at the exhibit was only about 7,000, he reached countless more on the radio.

Oscar Allison, who wrote about the 1940 crisis in St. Louis in a 1978 unpublished paper, said Tucker realized he had to reach as many people as possible. “He did not leave this work to others. He believed that much of the opposition to the ordinance by common ordinary citizens was based on false information or the lack of adequate information.”

He was on the radio stations, including KSD, KMOX, and KFUO on a regular basis. In a June broadcast on KSD he described St. Louis as a stricken city that was going to have to be aided by virtually all of its residents. “Now that summer is here do not forget our experience of last winter,” he said.


All three newspapers ran stories, sometimes daily, on the issue.

For nearly a year already the Post-Dispatch had adopted smoke pollution as its own newspaper campaign. Even with limited news that summer it still found a way to get the story into the newspaper every day.

Working with Tucker, the newspaper began an Anti-Smoke Roll of Honor in which companies, institutions and even individuals pledged their support to not buy fuel or use equipment that would create air pollution. The first to sign up were many of the local railroads, the schools, and United Charities.

Then real estate and investment firms that owned large or numerous properties in the city were sought out to make their pledges. It seemed that virtually everyday a box with new names was in the newspaper with headlines such as “Many Concerns Pledge Prompt Smoke Cleanup,” “22 Names Are Added to Smoke Honor Roll,” “36 New Pledges In Campaign To Eliminate Smoke.”

“This is one of the most important matters before us for the preservation of property values in St. Louis,” said W. L. Christopher of an investment firm with numerous properties, in his public statement of support.

“I sincerely believe that the stand taken by our city officials in this fight to rid St. Louis of it’s terrible smoke nuisance is commendable and I trust you will keep it up,” wrote George E. Niedt, president of Steelcote Manufacturing Co. when he signed on.

“All power to you,” wrote R. Calvin Dobson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of St. Louis , which vowed not to burn coal.

Even a grand jury was formed, less to investigate than to give its support. In one report it commended the local press for its efforts to publicize the problem.

By the end of the summer hundreds of pledges had been received. But it was one thing to pledge, another to follow through, and everyone knew the true test would only arrive with the coal weather.


Scrutiny Focuses Beyond St. Louis

            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 coal smoke that had often smothered St. Louis was starting to be recognized across the country now that the city was striving to get rid of it.


Mines such as this in Fulton Country, Illinois could be affected by the ban on soft coal. – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, a city that often struggled with coal smoke, took note of what was taking place up the river in Missouri. “Results of the St. Louis war on smog will be watched with keen interest through the coming winter by dozens, perhaps hundreds of cities plagued by smoke-caused fogs that tend to grow worse from year to year,” the newspaper reported in August. “The St. Louis experience may help us to a more accurate measure of the extent of coal smoke’s contribution to our own occasional winter blackouts.”

How big of a problem was air pollution from coal in the early decades of the 20th century?

Great enough that on an annual basis about 100 representatives from throughout America’s Midwest and East convened to discuss the problem. In May these municipal smoke abatement experts were in St. Louis for the Smoke Abatement Association conference.

Reinhold Kunz of Milwaukee, president of the organization, said that law enforcement measures to control the smoke had replaced the group’s past emphasis on technology solutions. Cities now had the technical means to control the problem, he said, the question was whether they had the will.

“Enforcement of essential and suitable installations to prevent air pollution is now the objective,” he said.


A mine in Madison County, Illinois.

Southern Illinois coal officials had so far responded to the efforts by St. Louis with calls to end those efforts or face a boycott. But nationally coal officials seemed more receptive to the efforts.

“It is decidedly to the benefit of the coal industry to help solve the smoke problem,” said W.E.E. Koepler, secretary of the Pocahontas Operators’ Association of Bleufield, W.V. “We cannot afford not to face the smoke nuisance. It more than a nuisance, it is a poison. It will be a poison to the coal trade if it is not fairly dealt with promptly.”

Some coal operators were beginning to welcome the St. Louis effort because many had cleaner burning fuel that they could sell to the city.

Southern Illinois needed to embrace change, not fight it, according to J. D. A. Morrow, president of the Pittsburgh Coal Co., one of the nation’s largest coal producers at the time. In a letter around the same time as of the smoke convention was meeting in St. Louis, Morrow predicted that Southern Illinois coal dealers would eventually embrace the changes demanded by St. Louis.

“As soon as they are satisfied that you really intend to have a smokeless city they will accommodate themselves to the conditions in the St. Louis market with their usual facility and skill,” Morrow wrote in a letter to local officials that was released to the newspapers.

Coal producers could promote stoves and boilers that more efficiently burned their high sulfur coal, he said. Or they could build processing plants to produce briquettes or other smokeless fuels.

Others nationally began to ask pointed questions about what was taking place in St. Louis

Howard A. Gray, director of the U.S. Bituminous Coal Division, summoned the two sides to Washington to sort out whether the federal government should step into the dispute.

Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann said St. Louis had an emergency situation from the smoke pollution and was well within its rights to demand that cleaner fuels be sold in the city.

But Clarence V. Beck, president of the St. Louis Coal Co., said the city had overdramatized the so-called “smoke evil.” A representative for the Southern Illinois miner’s union warned that the ban on soft coal was going to harm the industry and cause many miners to lose their jobs.

As early as April, when talk of an Illinois boycott had surfaced, St. Louis had asked officials in the anti-trust division of the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the legality of the boycott. Justice officials instead urged the two sides to try and work together, although they also agreed to monitor the situation.

By August as the boycott activity became more active those Justice officials were becoming more interested. But a true interference of interstate trade was not yet in effect, said James M. Henderson, special assistant to Atty. Gen. Robert H. Jackson. He promised a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he would continue to watch the situation closely.

The prospects were growing that it was going to be a quite different winter in St. Louis.

Illinois Vows Revenge But Will It Work?

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 Hotel Belleville fed baked beans and ham to more than 200 coal miners and operators in Southern Illinois and the audience served up a bellyful of outrage about St. Louis.


Officials watch the loading of coal into shuttle cars by conveyor belt at a mine in the 1940s near Johnson City, Illinois. U.S. Dept of Interior

Coal operators on that Friday in early May 1940 vowed to boycott St. Louis goods in retaliation for the city’s refusal to buy the coal they produced. At this gathering, however, many said they preferred the term “trade reciprocity” to boycott. It meant pretty much the same thing – Southern Illinois residents would buy St. Louis products when St. Louis bought Illinois coal.

For months St. Louis officials had been urging its neighbors to the east to cooperate rather than fight the city’s new strict ordinance banning the burning of high sulfur coal. Virtually all of that coal came from Illinois.

The reciprocity resolution was one of several passed that night in what reporters described was an often raucous gathering.

“Frequent applause greeted speakers who talked of trade reciprocity,” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Some of the numerous speakers said they would have threatened boycott but didn’t want to use the term.”

Instead they likened the St. Louis action to the nation’s ill-fated prohibition of alcohol and speakers talked about how to reclaim the market.

Clarence V. Beck, a self-described St. Louis coal man, said there was no evidence that the coal smoke each winter in the city was the cause of rising respiratory illnesses.

Richard F. Wood, executive director of the Solid Fuel Institute of St. Louis, which represented coal interests, said the city seemed desperate, it had changed its ordinances on coal three times in the last five years.

Another ordinance that was proposed at the meeting called on the city to abolish the new ordinance. Both that proposal and the reciprocity measure were approved.

The bean dinner was financed by Bituminous Casualty Safety Council, which represented coal companies.

By August the coal companies working with union representatives said that they had organized six towns, which vowed to boycott St. Louis goods.

“This time it is not an idle rumor or threat,” said Clarence G. Stiehl, president of the St. Clair-Madison Coal Operators’ Association.

The six towns were outside of Belleville, Ill. and they had a combined population of about 10,000.

Stiehl said the residents were 100 percent in favor of the boycott, because most were miners who had been organized by the Progressive Miners Union.

The boycott would intensify when the mines reopened in the early Fall, said Stiehl. He said those backing the ban would be especially motivated if the 80 members of the coal operators association were unable to find buyers for their product.

The only other solution for Illinois was to build processing plants to convert the soft, high sulfur coal into smokeless fuels. While the state of Illinois indicated it was willing to make that investment, it could take years for the plants to be completed.

But not everyone in Illinois was backing the boycott.

The Old Ben Coal Corp. in West Frankfort, Ill. announced during the summer that it had enough low sulfur coal to double its production and delivery to St. Louis. In addition, the company was rushing to complete a plant that would convert higher sulfur coal into smokeless briquette that would also comply with the new St. Louis regulations.

In addition, the Illinois Municipal League rejected a boycott referendum and instead authorized it leadership to meet with St. Louis officials.

“We won’t get anywhere unless we all go together,” said Mayor Lester Hileman of Christopher, Ill. “If we don’t take care of our interests down here, we won’t have any.”

Hileman was described by a reporter as “an abrupt, gnarled man who discharges his mayoral duties in time taken from his refrigeration business.” Hileman likened St. Louis to a “fellow who pats you on the back and gives you a nice smile as long as you carry our money to him.”

While some Illinois newspapers supported the boycott the majority urged restraint.

The Illinois State Register in Springfield counseled coal operators “to give careful consideration of the danger of losing one of their best cash customers – St. Louis.”

Added E.R. Jones, the editor of the Marion Evening Post: “We have never seen any good accomplished trying to force something upon a community it does not want.”

In mid-August the Post-Dispatch was asking both officials and business people if the boycott was developing. Few were seeing any signs of it.

A Marissa, Ill. businessman said he had heard people talk about the boycott but he was not seeing any difference in sales.

“The boycott must be somewhere else,” said another unnamed merchant in New Athens, Ill. “I haven’t seen anything of it here.”

St. Louis Mayor Bernard Dickmann said any boycott would not deter his city.

“We intend to go along just as we are until the problem of smoke has been resolved,” he said. “We’re not trying to ruin their business, we’re trying to help it. As I said years ago, we want their commodity but we don’t want their dirt.”

Winter Warnings Begin

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. Today, after a respite, the story of that struggle continues.

By Bob Wyss

The frost was coming.

And with the cold St. Louis knew was that it was about to be tested.


The warnings come from St. Louis City Hall.

After months of heated political battles, appeals to the citizenry, and efforts to protect the poor, St. Louis was about to discover if all of the work in the last nine months would protect itself from the clouds and pollution of previous winters.

James L. Ford, the banker who had headed much of the effort to crack down on the pollution, believed that the city was ready.

“There has never been in any city of our country such an aroused and militant mass movement on any civic question as there today exists in St. Louis,” he wrote in an article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The citizens, he said, were demanding a healthier atmosphere.

Who can deny them that right and who can prevent their accomplishments?” he asked. “Our aim is toward the sun.”

For decades St. Louis and other industrial cities in the world had burned coal for heat and energy and had suffered with the result – bilious black clouds that hung in the air and were so thick that they blotted out the sun for hours or days in the winter.

The city in April, over the raucous objections of those who claimed the costs would be to high, had ordered its citizens to either buy cleaner fuel or install more fuel efficient heaters and boilers. Throughout the summer the city had battled a boycott campaign staged by angry coal dealers and mounted a massive public relations campaign in behalf of the changes that were now about to begin.

Ford believed that even before the first chill that the city had made significant progress.

The railroads, which burned up to a half million tons of coal as they passed through St. Louis, had agreed to buy diesel engines and to end their resistance.

The city schools also agreed to comply, even though the cost of the cleaner fuel was going to be an additional $750,000, which in 2015 would have equaled $12.7 million.

The boycott from Illinois coal dealers and mine operators was continuing, but was already showing signs of dissipating.

Nationally, federal officials had questioned whether St. Louis had the right to restrict coal sales and the city at times had struggled to explain its reasoning.

But the public relations campaign, led by city officials and backed by the powerful St. Louis Post-Dispatch and its publisher, Joseph Pulitzer II, had been a powerful force.

Both the newspaper and its sister radio station had produced daily stories about the campaign. Some Commissioner Raymond Tucker had become a familiar voice on the radio station.

On Sept. 18 Post-Dispatch editors met with Ford, Tucker and other city officials to review what was ahead. They discussed possible stories for the fall both about the progress of what was called “the anti-smoke campaign” and the obstacles that still needed to be overcome.

Four days later the newspaper published an appeal by Ford urging everyone in St. Louis to join the fight. That could even mean reporting on neighbors who clearly were burning dirty coal.

Ford acknowledged that most citizens were not used “to take upon themselves the duty of policeman, to insure about law infractions.” But he said it was necessary.

“Once the public offender understands that he not only has to face those actually in charge of enforcement but faces also the condemnation of his neighbors and all good citizens, he will be far more likely to conform,” said Ford.

A few days later Tucker added his warning that the law would be strictly enforced. He said St. Louis had been rife with rumors that city officials would go easy on offenders.

“These rumors are not based upon fact and they are without foundation,” he said.

Tucker had been working many of the city’s largest fuel users but he admitted that his greatest concern was with the tens of thousands of small residences across the city.

For too long, he said, some who could afford to buy cleaner burning coal had balked at the higher price. That had to change. Plus, landlords too often had refused to pay more because they claimed they could not pass the added price on to their tenants.

The costs in the deterioration of the city, in increased respiratory and health ailments, was far greater. “These people have paid a price for smoky fuel relatively greater than any and far more than they will pay for smokeless fuel,” said Tucker.

Would there still be smoky days this coming winter?

Undoubtedly, said both Ford and Tucker.

Winds coming from nearby East St. Louis could blow coal smoke into the city. While enforcement within St. Louis would be strict, Tucker, Ford were purposely being conservative, believing it might take several years for the city to embrace this new system enough so that the pollution would abate.

On Sept. 26 the Post-Dispatch editorially endorsed the continuing effort and said the price ahead was reasonable. “Is it not worth a few extra dollars to enjoy the better health and the greater efficiency that come with smoke elimination?” it asked. “Is it not worth something to give the community a new lease on life?”

St. Louis would soon find out.

Coal Dealers Threaten St. Louis Boycott

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. Its report in late February proposed that all residents and businesses buy more expensive fuel that caused less pollution. A public hearing on March 26 drew 400 people with broad support except from the coal industry. On April 8 the Board of Alderman adopted an ordinance which Mayor Bernard Dickmann signed, opening the final campaign to clean the city’s skies.

By Bob Wyss

It did not take long for St. Louis to learn that they were in for a fight in insisting they would only buy cleaner coal.

Mines  Coal           Illinois              Strike

Illinois officials said the St. Louis decision jeopardized the livelihood of these Illinois coal miners about to enter the mines in 1937. AP

Immediately after passage members of the Herrin City Council in Illinois met to consider a resolution calling on local citizens to stop buying from St. Louis merchants. A week later it would pass unanimously. In nearby Marion, E.R. Jones, a columnist for the Evening Post, questioned whether the St. Louis ordinance would survive the opposition from city residents. Why, he wondered, would consumers be willing to pay more for coal than they had to?

Meanwhile the editor of the Herrin Daily Journal said it was time for the people in St. Louis to stand up for their friends in Southern Illinois. Where were the meatpackers, the beer sellers and other merchants of St. Louis who got their supplies from Illinois? Could they be counted on? Another Illinois editor chimed in and said St. Louisans deserved a punch in the chin to make them see stars.

The bullying was not new. For the last 20 years Southern Illinois threatened a boycott whenever St. Louis considered a plan to clean its air. A similar boycott had been launched in 1937 when the last smoke ordinance was adopted by the city. Two Illinois-based chambers of commerce in Belleville and Collinsville had gone so far as to take out full-page ads in both the St.Louis Post-Dispatch and Globe-Democrat inviting St. Louis industries to move to Illinois. Besides offering cheap coal and transportation costs, the ad said “We have no inhibitive smoke ordinances or other city regulations which say how the coal you use shall be treated.” That boycott campaign even got an assist from the Illinois governor but it never really got going because the ordinance was so ineffective.

Illinois Coal Exports

Even in recent years the high sulfur coal mined here in Illinois has continued to find buyers overseas. AP

This time the city appealed to the Roosevelt administration for help. James L. Ford, chairman of the Smoke Elimination Committee, asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the boycott threats. Ford contended that they were a “restraint on trade” and a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Thurman W. Arnold, known as the “trust buster” for the U.S. Attorney General, promised to look into it.

While city officials prepared for the boycott, they knew they had other issues also to contend with. For one, Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker’s staff would have to be increased to enforce the ordinance. Because suddenly, cheap high-sulfur coal was illegal the same way bootleg liquor had been during prohibition.

Coal dealers would have to sell only higher grade coal and chimneys and smokestacks would be scrutinized to make sure they were not emitting high levels of smoke. Anyone repeatedly caught violating the standards would risk the possibility of having their boiler sealed the following summer.

The city would also have to begin finding someone to supply coal, in case local dealers balked. Already secret negotiations had begun between the city and a series of suppliers in Arkansas.

Finally, Tucker knew the only way to truly win this fight was to convince the citizens of St. Louis it was in their best interest. That meant going to local meetings and gatherings and speaking on the radio and to the newspapers as often as he could.

It was only April. He had six months.

He knew, it was going to be a long six months.

City Twarts Railroad Threat, Rejoices

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. Its report in late February proposed that all residents and businesses buy more expensive fuel that caused less pollution. A public hearing on March 26 drew 400 people with broad support except from the coal industry. The Board of Alderman adopted an ordinance which Mayor Bernard Dickmann threatened to veto.

By Bob Wyss

On this date April 8, which was a Monday 75 years ago, Philip Watson of the Terminal Railroad Association sent special delivery letters to each aldermen warning of the consequences if a controversial amendment were removed from the ordinance.

If the railroads did not have relief from new rules requiring they burn cleaner coal, the Terminal Association would challenge the law in court. It had no effect.

James L. Ford, the chairman of the city Smoke Elimination Committee, explained that he had called his full committee together after the ordinance had been amended to assist the railroads. It was so far-reaching, he said, that the city had no alternative but to oppose it.


St. Louis City Hall where a solution to fight coal smoke was reached. Wyss

“We would rather have no bill, rather an unjust one,” he said.

Mayor Bernard Dickmann met privately with aldermen in his office at 10 a.m. Afterwards, those who had voted for the ordinance said they had made a mistake. At noon they quickly voted to rescind the terminal amendment and passed the revised ordinance.

Dickmann was so pleased that he invited all 28 members of the board, other city officials, and even several newspaper reporters to have lunch with him at the Hotel Jefferson. It quickly turned into an impromptu victory celebration. The mayor, according to the reporters, could not contain his glee.

“This is the greatest thing we’ve ever done,” he declared. He said that ridding the city of coal smoke would not only help restore St. Louis but it would lure people back who had fled to the suburbs.

The newspapers were delighted. “Smashed Into Smithereens,” proclaimed the lead editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, delighted by the way the pesky railroad ordinance had been derailed. “Mayor Dickmann Saves the Day,” said the St. Lous Star-Times editorially.

And yet, in some respects, so much more needed to happen.

If the ordinance was contested by the railroads, there would be consequences. The Post-Dispatch urged the city to review its contract with the railroads for the tolls they paid to travel over municipally-owned bridges. Six weeks later, Editorial Page Editor Ralph Coghlan was still so angry that he urged the city to force the Terminal Association to move its tracks near the river.

Ford, the smoke chairman, said that if the Terminal Association had been less obstinate it would have discovered that the railroads were eligible for low-interest loans from the federal government to buy diesel locomotives. Each of those engines, he predicted, would save $10,000 a year.

The vote was clearly a milestone. And yet, it was a reminder that even when one hits such a high mark, so much more needs to happen. St. Louis may have vowed to get rid of its smoke, but delivering was another matter.

Germany UN Climate Prostest

Protesters continue to throng UN climate treaties, waiting for a solution. – AP

The St. Louis story of 75 years clearly resembles what the entire world is going through currently with climate change. and the efforts of the UN IPCC to quell it  The first major international conference and attempts to reach a treaty agreement occurred in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. While the U.S. initially signed on, Congress never approved it and the Bush administration ignored it. That was one milestone missed.

That failure prompted other nations to only ratchet up their greenhouse emissions, temperatures rose, and scientists have warned that we have reached or already exceeded a tipping point for abating the long-term impacts of climate change.

Finally, last December a new milestone was reached in Lima, Peru the United States, China and others agreed to a leveling off of carbon emissions by 2030. Last week, the Obama administration pledged to reduce greenhouse -gas emissions to up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The European Union and several nations have also filed similar pledges and the issue is head for negotiations before the UN summit in Paris this coming December.

It remains to be seen if Lima, or even Paris, will break new ground. Many are pessimistic that an agreement can be reached. Many are also pessimistic that even this agreement will not be enough to prevent a future environmental calamity.

Yet they felt the same way in St. Louis 75 years ago. Milestones are important. But in St. Louis, the work was just about to begin.

Betrayal Threatens Air Plan

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. Its report in late February proposed that all residents and businesses buy more expensive fuel that caused less pollution. A public hearing on March 26 drew 400 people with broad support except from the coal industry. On April 5 the city Board of Alderman adopted an ordinance requiring that clean coal be burned next winter.

By Bob Wyss

The eruption began almost immediately after the crowd cleared out of the Aldermen’s Chamber. James Ford, the chairman of the Smoke Elimination Committee, warned Dickmann that the Terminal Railroad Association amendment was too far-reaching. Dickmann quickly agreed.

Joseph Schweppe ,who had offered the amendment, also said he did not comprehend the magnitude of his change until he started getting calls from other Aldermen. It is likely that Dickmann, and perhaps Ford and Tucker, began the arm twisting.

Railroad  Diesel Electric Locomotives

St.Louis rail companies said that switching to diesels like these would be too expensive. – AP

By Saturday morning, less than 24 hours after the Aldermen had approved the ordinance, it was clear that the Terminal Association amendment was dead. The railroads were suddenly the city’s biggest enemy. Dickmann announced he would not sign the ordinance and that he was calling the Aldermen back into session Monday to reconsider the amendment. Schweppe said he would ask the board to rescind it.

Dickmann, in a statement that grew more incensed with each sentence, said that the city has been having “trouble with the Terminal for 30 years and this is nothing new. I look upon it simply as another obstructionist tactic by it.” Ralph Coghlan in his St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial, “The Terminal’s Sneaky Trick”, rose to his highest level of invective. He said that for 40 years the railroad organization had throttled progress in the city. “It has been the city’s most backward, most reactionary, most selfish and most offensively contentious single agency,” he wrote. “Well, the terminal has for too long been getting away with murder in this town. This is the end.” The Globe-Dispatch was nearly as irate, declaring in an editorial Sunday, April 7 that “what happened in the Board of Aldermen Friday reveals the Terminal in an old, old role, that of civic saboteur.”


City officials were fed up with pollution from the trains. Tucker Archives

What had happened? The Terminal Association and its president Philip Watson, had miscalculated. The railroad consortium, with its colorful history dating back to the days of ferryboats, had long had its way in the city. But, the railroads were losing power. Watson was new to the city, bewildered by the outrage the association had provoked, and he was unable to control the resulting firestorm.

His failure to comprehend was understandable. The railroads, and in particular the steam engine that ran each train, had long been inextricably tied to coal.   While James Watt, the son of a Scottish carpenter, is credited with popularizing the steam engine in the 18th Century he actually capitalized on inventions created a century before. Thomas Newcomen in the 1860s developed a steam-driven piston engine that pumped water out of coal mines, dramatically expanding where the industry could go underground. However, the machinery used huge quantities of coal, making it impractical outside of a mine until Watt’s adjustments 100 years later. Steam engines led to new ways to manufacture goods and the steam-powered locomotives then moved those products to more markets.

English trains ran on coal but surprisingly American trains resisted, preferring wood. These trains ran cleaner but they had a serious handicap – they produced sparks that soon were igniting the countryside. The late 19th Century most American locomotives had converted to coal although the engine and cars were noticeably more grimy from the black coal soot.

By World War I the country’s Class 1 Railroads were consuming 135 million tons of coal a year. No one knew it at the time, but that turned out to be the peak year of usage for the railroads, although one year during World War II the railroads did come close by using 132 million tons. During the 1920s and 30s many railroads began switching to either diesel or electric. Also, by 1940 they were beginning to lose freight traffic to trucking firms and passengers to automobiles and soon the airplane.

The terminal association and its railroads had not only misunderstood their standing in the city, but also hastened their political demise in St. Louis. Soon the city was talking to them about moving the tracks by the riverfront onto land that would eventually feature the famous Gateway to the West arch that today characterizes St. Louis.

Landmark Law Passed Except…

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. Its report in late February proposed that all residents and businesses buy more expensive fuel that caused less pollution. A public hearing on March 26 drew 400 people with broad support except from the coal industry.

By Bob Wyss

More than 300 protesters arrived at St. Louis City Hall before noon on April 5.

They were coal dealers, operators and miners. The Board of Aldermen was about to debate and then vote on the smoke ordinance. The crowd was demanding that the plan be sent back to committee and killed.


Coal protesters thronged to St Louis City Hall. – Wyss

Trucks were parked near the Market Street side of the City Hall displaying banners denouncing the ordinance. One said “The Alderman May Pass This Bill, But the Public Will Foot It.” The second declared “New Coal Smoke at Higher Prices.” On that truck were three stoves, burning what was purported to be the cleaner, more expensive coal favored by proponents of the ordinance. Smoke was pouring from each of the stoves.

Victor Packman, a lawyer representing local coal dealers, urged the city not to pass the ordinance. “There is no emergency,” he said. This is summer and the bill does not have to be rushed through to meet any critical situation.”

The boisterous throng marched into City Hall and squeezed into the second floor Aldermen’s Chamber. The swarm was raucous, sometimes drowning out the city representatives as they spoke. Finally everyone was warned that police were going to be called to clear the gallery. For awhile, that quieted the crowd.

One amendment was offered, from Alderman Joseph Schweppe, in response to a request from the city’s railroads.


Railroad officials said they could not afford the expenses of switching from coal-fired locomotive. – Tucker Archives

At the hearing the week before Philip Watson, president of the Terminal Railroad Association, had warned that some accommodation should be made to allow trains to continue to burn coal in their locomotives. Now, the association was playing hardball. In a letter delivered to each member of the board, the association warned that unless an amendment was made the association would challenge the ordinance in court.

“It is well known that there are no devices available for locomotives which will burn bituminous coal without emitting some smoke,” he said. Watson added that complying with the ordinance could cost its members $800,000 a year.

The surprise amendment passed 21 to 7. Then, as the catcalls and boos grew, aldermen prepared to vote. Only one alderman stood to protest the full ordinance.

Thomas V. Walsh complained that the ordinance would harm the city’s poor. “I know it will be a great hardship for the people of my ward,” he said. “During the blackest days my people were warm and well clothed. If you pass this bill you will deprive them of some of these comforts because they will have to use some of this money to pay the increased price for coal. The bill is impossible to enforce, there is nothing in it but a command to obey.”

Opponents cheered.

No one else spoke and the voting began. It passed 28 to 1.

Normally the ordinance would need another reading and vote but the board had suspended its normal rules so that it could go directly to Mayor Bernard Dickmann for his signature.

Afterwards Dickmann said he was pleased that the bill had been passed but he was not happy about the amendment permitted for the railroads.

Dickmann intended to sign it at a ceremony at 4:30 that afternoon.

It didn’t happen. By then, the entire plan was in danger of collapse.,

Soot Louis Prepares for Future

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. Its report in late February proposed that all residents and businesses buy more expensive fuel that caused less pollution. A public hearing on March 26 drew 400 people with broad support except from the coal industry.

By Bob Wyss

As support grew for the city’s plan to clean its air the Board of Alderman scheduled April 5 to finally act.


St. Louis City Hall prepared for the board meeting. Wyss

There seemed to be little suspense about the outcome. A majority of board members indicated they would vote for the necessary ordinance and only two were considering what amounted to minor amendments.

Fire Chief Lawrence Cornoyer said he believed that the measures would reduce the number of fires and injuries. The ordinance encouraged the use of mechanical stokers which Cornoyer said would be an improvement because people sometimes fed too much coal into a furnace. When that happened the fire could flare and spread beyond the fire box, and cause a house fire.

The changes could not come fast enough for some people. One local physician was so upset by the state of the city’s air pollution that he had a sign fashioned, which he attached above the license plate of his automobile. Above the Missouri – 1940 designation on the plate were the words “Soot Louis, Mo.”

The doctor, who was not named, explained: “It was a brainstorm of mine to focus attention on the smoke situation, but some of my friends say it’s a harsh criticism of our city and I’m afraid it has been taken in the wrong light.”

The doctor said he gave some of the signs to friends, and tried to sell others at gas stations to defray his costs, but he had finally given up.

Meanwhile city officials were fielding questions about a new statue at Aloe Plaza. Called the Meeting of the Waters, it featured 14 nude figures. Some were asking if there had been complaints about the statues because they were still boarded up. City Engineer William Becker said the barriers were up only to protect them from the weather. But he did worry what might happen next winter.

“Unless we do something about it,” he said, “they’ll turn coal black, just like all the other statuary in St. Louis.”

400 Offer Mixed Messages to St. Louis

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. Its report in late February proposed that all residents and businesses buy more expensive fuel that caused less pollution. The question now was whether the city government, and then the city’s residents, would comply.

By Bob Wyss

Finally, it was time for the public to speak.

On this day, 75 years ago, more than 400 people came to St. Louis City Hall for a public hearing on the city’s Smoke Elimination Committee plan and ordinance that would require virtually everyone to stop burning soft coal.

Only an hour was provided for each side.

Opponents were virtually all representatives of the coal industry.

Supporters represented a wide range of interests in the city.


Coal interests wanted to preserve coal – Tucker Archive

Coal representatives said that the plan would be too costly to residents and business and that coal and the smoke it produced was safe.

“Thousands of men in fire rooms and boiler rooms in the city breathe pure coal smoke and have no higher mortality rate than other men,” said George W. Curran, president of Curran Coal Co. “You’d be surprised at some of the conditions you’d find. It’s easy to get doctors to give statements about the injurious effects of smoke with the press lauding them and patting them on the shoulders.”

Supporters of the cleanup plan responded that it was necessary, long over due, and would save lives.

“If we had a blackout today of the kind which we are all too familiar, we wouldn’t need scientific authority to tell us that the smoke is injurious to breathe and its effects costly to clean away,” said Wilbur B. Jones of the Chamber of Commerce. “St. Louis of the future will look back on this discussion as we look back at the time, nearly four decades ago, when people argued the question whether our drinking water could be cleared of its mud. It is as important now to rid St. Louis of the plague of smoke as it was then to clean our water supply.”

Coal officials, both at the hearing and in recent days, had been arguing they would have great difficulty obtaining the type of cleaner coal the city was demanding and that the cost would be more than the poor could afford.

Richard F. Wood, executive director of the Solid Fuel Institute, said the additional cost would amount to $10 million a year, which in today’s costs would be more than $167 million.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an editorial suggested that Wood had either been “grossly misled” about the true cost of the plan. They further charged that they feared he was engaging in a “campaign of misrepresentation” which would have to be dealt with “in the most forceful manner possible.”

J.A. Wolf, who ran Neighborhood House that helped low-income families, said that the poor were not afraid of the ordinance. He said the measure would be of immense value because it would end air pollution in many of the city’s most congested areas.

E.B. Langenberg, a heating engineer who had sat on a previous smoke elimination board, said the public supported the measure because coal officials “haven’t made a move” to help end the air pollution.

“You can’t keep a building clean now unless you paint it every three months,” he added. “The boiler and furnace industries are in line (in their support). Cities all over the country are moving towards smoke elimination; this bill is the first constructive step here. It is time for our coal men to wake up.”

Other groups supporting the measure ranged from civic groups including the General Council on Civic Needs, the College Club, the Lindenwood Improvement Association and the board of realtors. Several local physicians also spoke in favor.


Railroads were a strong presence in St Louis – Tucker Archives

One group came out with a mixed verdict. Philip J. Watson, representing the Terminal Railroad Association which represented the many rail companies that ran through the city, said his group supported most of the plan. However, Watson said that the trains should not be required to shift from coal to other fuels such as diesel because the cost of $1 million would be prohibitive.

“The railroads contribute only a minimum part of the problem, as shown by the fact that there is no smoke nuisance in summer, though the railroads operate then just as in the winter,” said Watson.

At the, no one knew just how important that comment would be.

At the conclusion of the hearing members of the Board of Aldermen indicated that the Public Safety Committee would meet in the next few days and consider the ordinance.

The stage was now set. The skies might be more clear with the warmer weather but the rhetoric was about to cloud St. Louis.