Cartoons Can Anger St. Louis Too

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

Besides having a crusading publisher, a hard-nosed reporter, and a colorful editorial page editor, the smoke campaign launched by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had one other weapon – cartoons.

Political cartoons, produced by the dean of the profession and one of the best of his time, Daniel Fitzpatrick.

Hw may never quite as colorful as some of his colleagues in his in his forty-five year career at the Post Dispatch, but his drawings made up for that omission.

He struggled in school in Superior, Wis. to the point where he finally dropped out of school. He was spending too much time drawing as opposed to studying history or algebra. His mother asked him what he planned to do.

Become an editorial cartoonist, he replied.

He studied two years at the Art Institute of Chicago and got a cartooning job with the Chicago Daily-News. In 1913 the Post-Dispatch hired him. He would remain there until 1958. The Post-Dispatch already had a history of hiring the top political cartoonists and that would continue after Fitzpatrick. Among the greats who spent much of their careers at the Post-Dispatch were Tom Englehardt, Bill Mauldin and Mike Peters.

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

St.Louis Post-Dispatch – AP

During the smoke campaign Fitzpatrick had already won one Pulitzer Prize, in 1926 and he would win a second in 1955. Time called the sandy-haired, white-mustached Fitzpatrick one of the four top cartoonists in America.

He was a political liberal who seemed to always side with the underdog while attacking what he considered “the conservation establishment.” His targets included Adolph Hitler and the growing menace of the Nazi regime in Germany, and Missouri political boss Tom Pendergast.

He seemed never afraid to take a stand, even if it displeased his boss. Three years before when Pulitzer and the Post-Dispatch supported Republican Alf Landon over Franklin Roosevelt, Fitzpatrick refused to go along and expected to be fired. Instead, Fitzpatrick said that the response he got from Pulitzer was the remark “Sorry you couldn’t go along with us.”

Editorial Page Editor Ralph Coghlan, who worked so closely with the cartoonist, once called Fitzpatrick a “radical” in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine. “Fitz has a profound contempt for ‘stuffed shirts.’ He sees through their masks. He hates the greed of this gentry. Fitz wants democracy to work,” Coghlan wrote.

Both Fitzpatrick and Coghlan were fined and jailed after they criticized a local judge for freeing a public official who had been criminally charged with helping bribe a union leader. The case, which occurred virtually the same time as the smoke campaign, became a major first amendment issue nationally. Eventually the fines and jail sentences were overturned.

Political cartoons struggled at times for respect, but Fitzpatrick was often praised by those who understood art and political expression. In 1941 a New York art gallery displayed 45 of Fitzpatrick’s cartoons and upon his retirement he donated 1,750 of his original drawings to the State Historical Society of Missouri. Fitzpatrick would live until 1969.

Even his retirement in 1958 drew comment from Time magazine under a story headlined “The Hell-Raisers.” One hallmark of a Fitzpatrick cartoon was a dingy space he labeled Rat Alley, which had become the cartoon home for the worst of the crooks.

One of those Missouri politicians assigned to Rat Alley once complained to the Post-Dispatch, “I could answer your editorials, but what can you do with that guy who draws cartoons?”

According to Time, Fitzpatrick replied: “I’ve made an awful lot of people goddamn mad.”

By now Spring was underway and the smoke was no longer billowing over St. Louis. But an awful lot of people were goddamn made.

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The Editor Who Got Mad

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

Ralph Coghlan liked to get people mad.

As he explained once: “When I find men in public office outraging public decency it makes me goddam mad.”

Which made Coghlan seemingly perfect to be the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page 75 years ago at a time when the newspaper was fighting to help the city rid its terrible air pollution.

The editorials had been unrelenting since the campaign had begun last October.  A few made the front page, but most were on the editorial page, which in those days looked remarkably different than most newspaper pages of today.  The type was normal size but the headlines were no larger, and the page would often have five, six, even eight small editorials.St-Louis-Flags

They were unassuming, the exact opposite of Coghlan.

Time magazine once described him as a ruddy, owlish, excitable Irishman, “who breathes fire and snorts.”

Originally from Chicago, Coghlan had worked in the editorial pages for the last 20 years, first at the Louisville Courier-Journal and then at the Post-Dispatch.  According to Time magazine he was fired in Louisville “for betraying the Courier-Journal’s bone-dry policy (He let a wet letter slip into the letter’s column.”

Coghlan took over as editoral page editor in St. Louis is January, 1939, just before the smoke campaign began.  Some of his battles during the next decade were famous.

Once Coghlan’s ire got raised over three old cannons perched on the lawn of the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City.  He thought they were a disgrace and should be scrapped but the Governor at the time disagreed.

One day Coghlan was working in his yard, planting locust trees, with the assistance of a tree surgeon, Sidney Stearns.  The conversation turned to the cannons and it ended with Stearns agreeing to drive to Jefferson City with a friend and remove the cannons.  Delighted, Coghlan said he would pay Stearn’s expenses.

But police caught Stearns in the act, as well as a loaded revolver and a full can of gasoline in his truck.  Soon Coghlan’s role was learned and he was arrested.  The Post-Dispatch tried to tell the story playfully but its competitors quoted then Governor Forrest C. Donnell:  “This is outrageous..filled with a spirit of anarchy and disrespect for law…The law is going to be enforced, the Post-Dispatch notwithstanding.”

Eventually Coghlan was acquitted.

That controversy was nothing, however, compared to Coghlan’s troubles at the same time the smoke campaign was waging.  The Post-Dispatch had reported that a state legislator had assisted in a bribe of a union leader.  Both were arrested and tried before state Judge Thomas Rowe, who ordered that the legislator be released from any charges.  The following day a judge in a separate civil action concluded that the union leader had been bribed and ordered him to pay a $10,000 fine.

This was too much for Coghlan.  The next day his editorial page ran this headline “THESE MEN ARE GUILTY.”  The language in the editorial was no less vitriolic.

Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer II

Rowe ordered Coghlan to appear in his court, found him in contempt, fined the newspaper $2,000, Coghlan $200 and ordered him to spend 20 days in jail.  Cartoonist Daniel Fitzpatrick was also jailed.

Journalists around the nation erupted in anger.  Post-Dispatch Publisher Joseph Pulitzer II signed an editorial declaring “The Post-Dispatch Will Not be Gagged.”  Life magazine called it one of the most outrageous attacks on the press since John Peter Zenger.  The New York Herald Tribune labeled it “an arrogant and outrageous abuse of the contempt process.”

The state Supreme Court eventually over-turned the contempt citation.  By then Judge Rowe was gone, having been found dead in a hotel room at the Democratic National Convention.

Coghlan not only got readers mad, he would often anger fellow staffers and even his boss, Pulitzer.

In 1949 Coghlan wound up in what was described in a news story at the time as “a drunken brawl.”  Pulitzer stripped Coghlan of his title, but kept him on the payroll, ordering him to work out of Europe.

Ralph Coghlan had gotten one too many people mad.

St. Louis Long Home of Top Journalists

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

Air pollution, soot, coal smoke usually do not generate 72-point headlines in newspapers or screaming in posts on digital news outlets.

But in 1940 coal and its smoke was big news in all three of the newspapers in St. Louis, but especially in the Post-Dispatch.

The news staff was no longer the domain of Oliver “O.K.” Bovard, but it certainly still bore many of the characteristics of the legendary managing editor.   Bovard had joined the Post-Dispatch in 1898 in unusual circumstances. He was working for a rival newspaper that would not publish a story Bovard had uncovered about municipal corruption involving a contract with a streetcar company. He brought it to the Post-Dispatch, which agreed not only to publish it, but to also hire Bovard.

Albert Fall

Albert Fall was implicated in the Teapot Dome story reported by the Post-Dispatch. AP

By 1908 he was managing editor, a post he would serve for 30 years. At the height of the Depression, he was earning $70,000 a year, far more than any other news editor, because Publisher Joseph Pulitzer II valued Bovard so greatly. Bovard’s greatest achievement was to help guide the investigation of the Teapot dome scandal, which linked Interior Secretary Albert Fall with a $230,000 bribe.

By 1939 when the Post-Dispatch smoke campaign began the newspaper newsroom managing editor was Benjamin Harrison Reese, once described by Time magazine as a 6-foot, 4-inche Missourian. He ran his staff in the same tradition as Bovard. While many reporters contributed to the campaign, there was only one who was designated as the “smoke editor” and that was Sam J. Shelton.

Shelton joined the newspaper in 1913 as a general assignment reporter, served as an Army sergeant during World War I, and over the years had covered a range of stories including pieces about kidnapping, blackmailers and graft. He was best known for his investigation of the Union Electric Co., the utility, whose headquarters were directly across the street from the Post-Dispatch.   Shelton had disclosed over a two-year period that utility bosses had a $525,000 slush fund that was used to bribe politicians. That investigation would eventually result in the jailing of two of the corrupt legislators.

By 1939 Shelton was one of the newspaper’s stars. He was the only reporter who received an invitation to interview Tom Pendergast, the political boss of Kansas Cit, who was on his way to prison in 1939.

The smoke campaign had the hallmarks of a late 20th Century environmental story at a time when environmental issues were scarcely noticed. Shelton was increasingly becoming interested in conservation issues, and he would soon begin taking on stories about the Missouri Valley Authority, which was modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority.

NIEPOETTER

Bill Niepoetter, 77, of Centralia, Ill., holds a St. Louis Post-Dispatch special section from April 30, 1947, detailing the aftermath of an explosion that killed 111 miners, including Niepoetter’s father and three other relatives. – AP

In 1945 he became the personal assistant to the publisher and later he would write for the editorial page. He retired in 1957. By then a son, also named Sam Shelton, had joined the staff of the Post-Dispatch, and he stayed nearly as long as his father, including a long stint as city editor.

The Post-Dispatch would also be drawn into more environmental stories, although not by design. On March 25, 1947 an explosion at the Centralia Coal Company’s Mine No. 5 near Centralia, Ill. trapped 142 minors and 111 of them died. Miners had warned that the mine was a hazard just two years earlier.

The mine was only 65 miles east of St. Louis. The Post-Dispatch coverage of Centralia would earn it one of its five Pulitzer Prizes during this era.

Coal was a big story, as we were only beginning to understand.

Father, Son Campaign for 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 sun may have struggled during this time but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had begun shining a light, running an old-fashioned newspaper campaign. There were several leaders involved in the fight.

By Bob Wyss

Every year on one particular day at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the presses would screech to a halt and the lights would dim for a minute.

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer, who founded the Post-Dispatch. – AP

It was the anniversary of the death of the newspaper’s founder, Joseph Pulitzer, ordered by his son Joseph Pulitzer II. The son never let anyone forget the lessons forged by his father. A bust of his patriarch stood in the building. On the editorial page were his father’s words: “Always fight demagogues of all parties…never be satisfied with merely printing news…never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”

In 1940 the Post-Dispatch had just entered an era in which it shone as one of the nation’s greatest newspapers. JP II, as the publisher was known, often attributed all that to the heritage established by his father.

It was impressive. Joseph Pulitzer was a young Hungarian immigrant in 1879 when he bought the Post and the Dispatch, merged them, and launched a series of crusades against corruption and complacency in St. Louis. His keen journalistic intellect quickly made the newspaper enormously successful both circulation-wise and financially. That would prove to be a detriment for St. Louis, because by 1883 Pulitzer was an absentee publisher, garnering far greater praise for his stewardship of the New York World.

But the son’s record was equally impressive, especially between 1937 and 1951. Those were the years that the Post-Dispatch would win five Pulitzer Gold Medals, the highest mark in journalism, and an award that had been established and named after JP II’s father. It would take the venerable New York Times 86 years to win that many gold medals. While St. Louis had been unfortunate in losing the senior Pulitzer, it was only lucky to get the son, and it only happened because of an error in judgment by the elder Joseph Pulitzer. As a result, Joseph Pulitzer II would spend much of his career in St. Louis, build a great paper, and begin to take a keen interest in the smoke that was shrouding his adopted city.

The senior Joseph Pulitzer was a brilliant publisher but before he was 55 he was suffering from nervous disorders that made him increasing blind, demanding and cold. The father was a difficult taskmaster to his three sons. Joseph, the second son, seemed to be the ideal candidate to take over the business. He was described as “robust and outgoing,” conveying the same strong confidence as his father, and yet without the senior’s more negative command style. JP II trained under his father first at the family estate in Bar Harbor, Maine – where the elder Pulitzer had retreated from his newspapers.

Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer II, son of the founder. – AP

The young man was eventually sent to St. Louis with the understanding he would someday take over the business.   Then something happened, the elder man lost confidence in his son, and eventually Joseph took over the Post-Dispatch while brothers Herbert and Ralph tried to manage the World. By 1931 the two siblings had failed and so had the World. Meanwhile the Post-Dispatch under JP II was not only a great newspaper journalistically, it was also financially healthy and robust.

The father and son had other similarities besides a dedication to great journalism. Both had very poor eyesight and they often retreated far from the newsroom, mostly to the Chatwold estate in Bar Harbor established by the senior Pulitzer and later used by the younger.

JP II employed two secretaries to read to him five to seven hours a day because his eyes were so weak he could only make out newspaper headlines. At night his wife took over the task. He read not just newspapers but new books and plays. He hunted, but could only shoot ducks in his Ozark retreat when a bird was outlined in the sky.

Despite his long absences he kept in close and daily contact with his editors, by telephone, and by mail with yellow memos. While his eyesight may have been poor, he could see enough of the smoke that blanketed St. Louis every winter needed to know it had to be stopped. That’s why he began assembling a staff to campaign against the smoke and now as the winter continued he was closely monitoring the progress. Like everyone else, he was wondering if St. Louis had finally had enough, if it had the fortitude to end it.

More than anything he wanted to know, as in the words of his father, if St. Louis had learned to “never be afraid” again.

St. Louis Echoes Arise in China

In 1940 – 75 years ago- it was the newspapers that forced St. Louis to clean up its massive air pollution problem.

China Olympia

Beijing is St. Louis in 1940. – AP

Is this what it will take in China?

“Two hundred million and counting: That’s how many times a documentary
about China’s massive air pollution problem has been viewed online
since the weekend. Environmentalists are hailing it as an eye-opener
for Chinese citizens.” Anthony Kuhn reports for NPR’s All Things
Considered March 4, 2015 on the documentary  that has taken China by storm.

Fight for dirty to clean begins

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

One would think that if a solution was found to a problem that was harming vast numbers and costing virtually everyone more money that it would be immediately embraced.

But that is not the way politics can work.

DSCN0630

The fight was moving to the political arena at St. Louis City Hall. – Wyss

In St. Louis 75 years ago there was absolutely no guarantee that the city was going to accept an ambitious plan by a civic group created by the mayor. The plan called for eliminating the air pollution that had haunted for decades, but the fuel to carry out the plan was going to cost more.

Still, reactions did vary in the days after the report was released.

Mayor Bernard Dickmann announced immediately after the report was issued that he would prepare the necessary ordinances and he was supremely confident that the Board of Aldermen would approve them.

While some inconveniences were inevitable for the people of St. Louis, Dickmann said, “I am sure by this time they all realize that such inconvenience and expense will be insignificant as compared with the tremendous savings that will be affected, not only in money, but in comfort and health, by the elimination of the smoke nuisance.”

As a Democrat, Dickman had every right to expect the board controlled by the Democrats to heed to his wishes.

But even the president of the board, William L. Mason, was qualified in his support and warned that many of the impacts should be delayed for as long as possible for local residents.

Alderman Phelim O’Toole said that he would have to be shown that the cost of the fuel was not prohibitive for residents in his district.

Alderman Hubert Hoeflinger said that the city would need to convince residents that a more expensive smokeless fuel was in their best interest. “The problem is to convince ‘the little man’ it is much cheaper for him in the long run to buy the higher priced coal,” he said.

Alderman Thomas V. Walsh said he was going to discuss the report with his constituents before he took any position on what should be done.

Meanwhile the newspapers had made up their minds – and their editorials indicated they wanted action.

CoalAd

Still to be heard from were the coal merchants who had fought earlier plans. – Tucker Archives

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was the most bullish, delivering an editorial headlined “We Are on Our Way.” It called the report a “remarkable document. It is clear, thorough, realistic, beautiful and calmly reasoned.”

“This is good news – excellent news,” it continued. “Just as a man who, after dreaming for years of building a home for his family, finally engages an architect to draw a set of blueprints, so St. Louis at last reached the blueprint stage of smoke elimination.”

The St.Louis Globe-Democrat was also pleased with the report, especially the Smoke Elimination Committee’s decision that more than a strong education program would be needed to teach residents how to burn coal more effectively so that they did not produce smoke. But it was disappointed that a municipally run plant to produce cleaner coal through coke or other products was rejected.

One of the strongest endorsements came from the board of directors of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce which said the group would do “everything within its power” to get the resolution passed.

Getting the business community on board was critical. In many ways the fight that St. Louis engaged in 75 years ago is very similar to how the U.S. is grappling with cutting back its emissions that are creating global warming. One of the biggest opponents has been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But in St. Louis there were still other parties to hear from, including the coal suppliers and merchants and the railroads that depended on coal. Even their silence at this stage was ominous.

Smoke Delays St. Louis Spring

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

Spring was delayed.

In some portions of greater St. Louis maple and elm trees had been blooming now for more than 10 days. That was not the situation, however, in the center of the city.

The Weather Bureau reported that fog and smoke had darkened the city during its daylight hours to a greater extent than anytime in 46 years. Sunshine was present less than one-third of all daylight hours in February.

Weatherbird

Post-Dispatch Weatherbird

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which ran a regular weather feature on its front page called the Weatherbird, was now calling the city Soot Louis, Mo.

Edgar Anderson, a botany professor at Washington University, blamed the failure of the trees to bloom in central St. Louis to the smoke. He said it was not just the lack of sunlight that was a problem, but also that without sun those areas of the city were colder.

In some respects, this was not new. The coal smoke had so clouded St. Louis that the city was often a week or more behind the rest of St. Louis County in greeting Spring.

It was just that the pollution had been so harsh this year that it was going to take nature longer to recover.

Unhealthiest City Gets a 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.  As February continued, the city waited for the committee’s report.

By Bob Wyss

Finally, at the end of February, the city learned its fate.

The Smoke Elimination Committee issued a 31-page report that was published across the front page of all three newspapers warning that to rid the city of its black smoke each winter it was going to have to pay more to heat homes and run its industry.

cityview

The plan promised air such as this in St. Louis would leave. – Tucker Archives

All furnaces, stoves and power plants should be required to burn only smokeless fuel or they would have to install new equipment to mechanically feed fuel into boilers, the report said.

The options for so-called smokeless fuel would range from low sulfur coal to coke and other byproducts that could be manufactured from the cheap high-sulfur coal that nearby Illinois coal dealers had been supplying to St. Louis customers.  The mechanical option for most meant installing stokers.

The report stated that the black smoke that seemed to greet St. Louis every winter was “unbearable” and that is jeopardized the city’s “health, financial welfare and good living conditions.”

James L. Ford, the local banker who had headed the smoke elimination committee, issued a letter that accompanied the report that said what would be needed next would be legislation from the city to adopt the recommendations and assistance from neighboring cities.  If that happened, he said “this evil” could be stricken from the city.

As the St. Louis Globe-Democrat pointed out, similar recommendations had been made five years earlier and then ignored by the city.

The Smoke Elimination Committee said if its recommendations were adopted the city would begin to see some relief by the next winter and an elimination of the smoke within two to three years.

Anticipating that the transition to the new, more expensive fuel might be rocky, the report recommended that the city be allowed to buy, sell and distribute the new fuel if private vendors were unable to carry out the task.

Railroad-cars

Railroads were told to do their part. – Tucker Archieves

It also called on the railroads to do their part to eliminate the fumes coal-fired locomotives were causing in the city, although it did not spell out how that would occur.

The report also took a shot at the city’s public schools, reporting that during the winter many of the schools seemed to be the worst offenders in producing smoke.  While there were legal questions on whether city government could force the politically independent school board to comply with these recommendations, the report said this “should not be raised. The schools should voluntarily conform.”

The report also rejected five other ideas that had been bandied about, especially in the newspapers, over the last three months.  These included:

  • Rejecting the need for a municipally owned and operated plant that would process coal and produce a smokeless fuel. The committee concluded that there was no need for the government to take over a private system of business.
  • An education program to teach residents how to improve combustion and curb the smoke they were producing. Education programs had been tried in the past, with limited success.
  • Subsidizing the price of the fuel in order to make it more acceptable to the public.
  • Replacing the coal by using more heating oil or natural gas. Neither fuel had the capacity at this time to replace coal.
  • Building a district heating system that would supply steam to commercial, industrial and residential customers. The cost would have been enormous and time consuming.

The committee report conceded that the new smokeless fuel would be more expensive.  But it also argued that this type of fuel was more efficient and long-lasting than the smoky coal most customers were using.

All three newspapers gave the report extensive coverage. The Post-Dispatch headline declared “Plan to Rid City of Smoke in 3 Years is Presidented by Citizens’ Committee,” the Globe-Democrat said “Mayor’s Committee for Smokeless Fuel Law” and the Star-Times reported “Six-Way Attack on Smoke Evil Called for in Mayor’s Committee.”

Finally, a plan had been devised.  The question now was whether it would be embraced or rejected.  That answer would begin to come clear almost immediately.

Clearer Skies Still Can Kill

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. As February continued, the city waited for the committee’s report.

By Bob Wyss

Seventy-five years after St. Louis faced a severe air pollution crisis and most cities throughout the United States have been beset at times with similar problems, one would think that the situation involving our sky had improved.

In the U.S. citizens no longer choke on the thick, black smoke that blanketed St. Louis so many days in the winter of 1939-40. Research has demonstrated the dangers of air pollution, advocates have pushed for changes and by the 1970s – now more than 40 years ago – Congress had enacted the Clean Air Act and other measures to clamp down on air pollution.

China Olympia

Air pollution remains high in many cities, including Beijing where this woman wore a mask while riding a bicycle just weeks before the Summer Olympics in 2008. – AP

Yet we still seem far from winning the battle.

According to a recent report by the American Lung Association, better than half of the U.S. population lives in counties with unhealthy levels of either ground-level ozone or particle pollution. That’s about 147.6 million people.

More than 27.8 million reside in the 17 counties considered the most unhealthy, because the levels of all measured air pollutants were measured at hazardous levels.

The situation is even worse when we look beyond the American borders, as this blog has been attempting to do on a regular basis just by measuring the air quality index in three cities, Beijing, Shanghai, and Delhi.

The World Health Organization estimates that outdoor air pollution caused 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012. The vast majority – 88 percent – occurred in both rural and urban areas of the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia.

About 80 percent of these deaths came from heart disease and stroke, 14 percent from chronic pulmonary or respiratory ailments and 6 percent from lung cancer. Smoking may have contributed to some of the deaths, but according to WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic, especially causing cancer of the lung.

Almost as an after-thought, WHO also reports that indoor air pollution has become a serious health risk for about three billion people who cook or heat their homes with a variety of organic fuels such as wood and charcoal and also from coal.

India Air Pollution

The monumental Indian Gate in New Delhi is shrouded in air pollution one day in 2013. – AP

These health reports do not even touch on the planet’s other great environmental and health crisis, the rising levels of carbon and other pollutants from human sources that are raising the temperature of the earth.

The cause of the planet’s dangerous air is complex. In 75 years the automobile and its tailpipe exhaust has become a major issue in American cities and worldwide. In addition, the world itself is becoming increasingly industrial, and smokestacks everywhere vent their waste.

Still, to a certain degree a good deal of the blame falls on the same fuel that threatened St. Louis in 1940 – coal.

Health officials at the time were concerned about particulate matter in the air, particles of sulfate, nitrate, ammonia and other chemicals. Much of the concern was on the particles that were minute and yet in combination still created the soot and smoke that stained the laundry, and caused lights to be switched on in the middle of the day.

While this soot no longer bothers major American cities, smoke stacks still emit vast amounts of these microscopic particles. What we now know is that it is the tiniest of these particles, those that are less than 10 microns, are the most dangerous. These are so small they can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs.

The Lung Association report was not entirely negative. “We are happy to repot continued reduction of year-round particle pollution across the nation, thanks to cleaner diesel fleets and cleaner power plants,” Harold Wimmer, the ALA’s national president said in a prepared statement. But much still needs to be done. “All of us – everyone in every family – have the right to healthy air.”

And how did St. Louis fare in the report?

About as foul as the air 75 years ago.

The city was ranked the 13th worst in the nation for its level of ground-level ozone, caused by industrial pollution and car exhaust. It was ranked the 8th worst nationally in particle pollution.

According to the report those who are most at risk from the particle pollution, the young, the old, the poor, are estimated to be 318,172.

This, 75 years after St. Louis thought it was facing its greatest crisis in the skies.

Air Attacks, Kills the Young and Old

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. As February continued, the city waited for the committee’s report.

By Bob Wyss

The headlines were blunt: “Smoke, Major Peril to Health,” “Physician Says Smoke Hurts All, Especially Sick,” and “Human Respiratory Tract Cannot Cope With Fumes.”

Air Pollution 1949

Children were especially prone to illnesses from smoke and air pollution. This child is being treated in 1949 from the toxic fumes that attacked and killed residents of Donora, Pa. – AP

For decades St. Louis had peered at the coal smoke that shrouded the city and only saw prosperity. Finally in the winter 75 years ago of 1939-40 the city was beginning to see sickness and death.

Four medical societies in the city declared that the air pollution being caused by the burning of coal was a public health menace that needed to be ended.

The Ear, Nose and Throat Club, the Trudeau Club that represented pulmonary and lung specialists, and the St. Louis Pediatric Society adopted recommendations that were then accepted by the St. Louis Medical Society.

That resolution condemned “the continuation of this health menace to the citizens of St. Louis and requests the proper authorities to institute immediate, appropriate and effective steps to abolish this menace.”

Some members of the Smoke Elimination Committee had worried that the medical community would not take a strong enough stand, but those fears proved to be ill founded.

Dr. John S. Young who had taken public health stands in the past, was especially outspoken in a story published in late January by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

While everyone suffered from the type of air pollution prevalent in St. Louis at the time, Dr. Young said that the young, the old, and those who were ill were at the greatest risk.

“The child born and reared in a smoky atmosphere never has the chance, all things being equal, of one born and reared where the air is unpolluted,” he said.

“If some scheme could be worked out by which the average mother could be shown that by tolerating air pollution she is partially guilty for the ill-health of her baby, I feel sure something would be done about it.”

Research by 1940 was showing a clear link between air pollution and cancer and other respiratory ailments, a point that was examined in great detail in a number of news stories and radio broadcasts.

Donora Killer Smog

The Donora attack was 10 years after St. Louis debated what to do about its air. A patient is being treated in a hospital near Donora. – AP

The human respiratory tract, a marvelous wonder, cannot cope with St. Louis smoke, Young said. “When we consider this anatomical arrangement,” he continued,” one does not have to be a physician to understand that God almighty anticipated when he made us that we would inhale certain substances that would be detrimental to our health. But I do not believe he considered that we should be exposed to hazards as severe as are found in many of our busy industrial sections.”

In a radio broadcast called John Q Public, Dr. Herbert V. Goldwasser was asked how the smoke affected those who were sick.

“Smoke is especially bad for convalescents,” said Goldwasser. “Asthmatics and people in that group are hit particularly hard.”

But he said even those who were well had difficulty coping.

“It pulls down our morale and our feelings of well-being,” he said. “It cuts down our general resistance to disease.”

None of this should have been news. While the large-scale outbreaks of deaths from air pollution in Donora, Pa. and London were still in the future, a four-day fog in Liege, Belgium had killed 65 people in December 1930. An investigation concluded that the deaths had been caused by noxious fumes from nearby industries that had affected the bronchial tubes of nearby residents.

Henry Obermeyer in his 1933 book Stop That Smoke! blamed ailments that could be caused by air pollution that ranged from increased common colds to heart disease and cancer.   “The popular idea that smoke does not injure health, but only affects our comfort, does much to interfere with real public appreciation of the problem,” he said at the time.

H.B. Meller, chief of Pittsburgh’s bureau of smoke regulation was even more blunt. “More persons are devitalized, disabled and poisoned by the impurities contained in smoke-polluted air than by the noxious ingredients in food and water.”

Seventy-five years later we would like to believe that we are at least in command of the problem. But in some ways, as we will demonstrate next, we are not.