Boy Scouts Aid Pittsbugh Soot

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

In Pittsburgh it was the Boy Scouts who came to the rescue.

Air Pollution 1943

Pittsburgh in the 1940s still was hampered by soot and smoke – AP

Until St. Louis took the lead in the 1930s the city with the foulest air pollution in America had been Pittsburgh. But a public campaign of education and a legion of smoke inspectors had been having an impact by 1940. The Boy Scouts were junior smoke inspectors in Pittsburgh.

They would tap on the door of a house or building where black smoke was billowing out of the chimney. They would offer to find a city smoke inspector to help the resident burn his fuel more efficiently. “It is said that the Pittsburgh householder has taken kindly to these tactful admonitions and that smoking chimneys have been considerately reduced by this method,” wrote Henry Obermeyer in his book Stop That Smoke.

Pittsburgh for more than a century had been infamous for how black the city could turn it’s air. A visitor in 1818 had written that “even the complexion of the people is affected by smoke.” Vaudeville comedians often made Pittsburgh’s air the butt of their gags and jokes.

Steel and other heavy industries had made Pittsburgh home, foundries depended on the nearby rich veins of coal, and the black smoke was another sign of prosperity for most. But the numbers detailing the problems from the air pollution were foul. About 107,272,000 pounds of soot fell within the city every year, which was 986.5 tons per mile and 157 pounds per person.

The weight of the soot actually exceeded the estimated weight of the entire population of Pittsburgh by 700,000 pounds.

But those figures were compiled in the 1920s. By the 1930s the situation had improved and while far larger cities such as New York and Chicago expressed concern about Pittsburgh’s air, their’s was actually no cleaner. Cities such as St. Louis and Cincinnati had a far greater air pollution problem.

Air Pollution 1944

Downtown Pittsburgh in 1944 has the lights on in the middle of the day. – AP

Like most communities, the efforts to reduce the smoke went back decades, in Pittsburgh’s case the first law was passed in 1804. None were effective, including one in the 19th Century that suggested that taller chimneys were the answer.

But in the 1890s, under pressure from the Ladies’ Health Association, the city finally passed an ordinance banning soft coal that had a high sulfur content in residential areas of the city. This was a prohibition that St. Louis refused to make, and industrial processes across the country would continue to fight into the 21st Century.

What finally pushed Pittsburgh to get serious was a study in 1912-13 by the Mellon Institute which showed that 40 percent of the city’s smoke stacks were violating the current lenient city ordinance and producing far too much smoke.

Smoke inspectors were hired and a massive educational program began to teach both businesses and residents how to better fire their boilers and industrial equipment.   The Mellon Institute continued to produce studies every few years and by 1923-24 significant reductions in both smoke and pollutants could be measured. These became a point of civic pride and motivating more and more people to do what they could. Besides burning better fuel, better combustion techniques began to be adopted.

The Boy Scouts were soon added to the education campaign and other communities, including London, began sending delegations to Pittsburgh to study what they had accomplished.

Despite the gains, air experts warned that what people could not see in the air might be just as dangerous as the smoke. A 1929 survey found that there had been a 36 percent increase in solid deposits, primarily solid particles too small to see, but which still were a respiratory danger. As the number of automobiles increased these emissions would rise and lead to ground-level ozone and other current air pollution hazards of the late 20th and early 21 Century.

Fighting air pollution has never been simple, even with the aid of Boy Scouts.

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Foul Air is Older than Ben Franklin

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.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting. Through January and into February the committee continued to meet.

By Bob Wyss

In 1758 Benjamin Franklin was in London working in behalf of the American colonies when he wrote his wife back in Philadelphia and described the atmosphere.

Literally, the atmosphere.

Britain Air Pollution

London, today, continues to fight air pollution, a scourge that Ben Franklin discovered 250 years ago – AP

“The whole town is one great smoky house, and every street a chimney, the air floating sea-coal soot, and you never get a sweet breath of what is pure without riding some miles for it into the country.”

St. Louis residents, suffering through a winter choked by coal smoke 75 years ago, could relate to Franklin’s lament. But so could virtually every major city in North America and Europe at the time.

As Henry Obermeyer reported in his 1933 book “Stop That Smoke,” coal consumption in the U.S. between 1810 and 1910 had increased from 20 tons a year to 447,852,909. The result was smoke that lingered especially in the winter blocking the sun. According to one study, New York on average lost 35 percent of its sunlight because of the coal smoke. On some days that level increased to as much as 73 percent.

Similar findings were reported elsewhere.

“An eclipse of the sun lasting only a few seconds is a startling phenomenon that gets into the headlines,” wrote Obermeyer. “Why can’t we get equally excited over an 80 percent eclipse that lasts for days and is often a monthly occurrence?”

The smoke contained particulates, known even then to be deadly. Today we know even about the health risks from particulates and the findings have been even worse than what was suspected at the time.

Particulate levels were estimated at 1,212,000 to 3,444,000 per cubic inch in cities. In comparison, only 100,000 particulates per cubic inch could be found in open country air.

“More than 6 percent of the air which the individual breathes in the average community is loaded with the soot of coal,” said Obermeyer. “In one day you may be inhaling as much as two and three-fifths pounds of soot out of the air.”stop that smoke

St. Louis had once figured out the overall costs of the smoke, taking in everything from washing buildings to the added laundry expenses. So had others, and the national figure, just for the cleaning, was $140 million. When one adjusts that number for inflation, the figure in today’s dollars would be $2.5 trillion. For just one year.

The costs per individual ranged from a more manageable $15 to $20 (today, $263 to $374).

New York city estimated its losses at $96 million a year.   Elsewhere the toll was $17 million in Chicago, $16 million in Philadelphia, $8 million in Cincinnati and $2 million in Knoxville.

And why was all of this being tolerated 75 years ago?

For the same reason that carbon emissions from coal and other sources continued to poison the earth’s atmosphere today.

Coal smoke, said Obermeyer, was a symbol of prosperity, of economic wellbeing, a hedge towards high employment.

And yet, said Obermeyer, “we are paying a terrible price in wasted health, wasted resources and ceaseless destruction.”

Beyond St. Louis, others were also beginning to also fight, but just as in St. Louis it was unclear how successful their efforts would be.

Urban Exodus Began Early in 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.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, but beginning in December the newly formed Smoke Elimination Committee signaled that change was imminent. The committee completed its deliberations in early February and began working on its final report, one that promised sweeping changes.

By Bob Wyss

In the years after World War 2 cities across America were depleted when millions moved to the suburbs, leaving blight, poverty and crime in their wake.

Race, better housing and improved transportation have often been cited as the reasons.

In St. Louis that trend began in the 1930s.

cityview

Coal smoke was driving residents out of St. Louis in the years before the winter of 1939-40. – B Wyss

While the three reasons blamed in the 1950s exodus were factors, there was one other that was even more important in St. Louis – coal smoke.

That was the conclusion reached by both the St. Louis City Plan Commission and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in reports and news stories in 1939 and 1940.

“The situation in St. Louis city is precarious, both from the standpoint of real estate values and the standpoint of taxes necessary to operate needed municipal services,” said Harland Bartholomew, chief engineer for the plan commission. “It is not hopeless, however.”

To demonstrate why people were moving, the Post-Dispatch compared an older house in the city to a new one in the county, 15 miles away. The city house with seven rooms had an annual property tax bill of $89.47 a year and cost $4,250. The home in the county was only five rooms, but the yearly taxes were $42 and the price was $4,650.

A key difference was that for the urban dwelling “smoke often blankets the neighborhood in winter,” according to the Post-Dispatch. The rural house was “on high ground with a country view and clean air.”

Population had grown “astonishingly” in the county while it was stagnant in the city. Meanwhile construction was also up and wealth, as reflected by income tax returns, had also grown at a far greater disproportionate rate.

“The migration has been of all classes, from small wage earners up,” said the Post-Dispatch and writer Richard C. Baumhoff. “New homes in the suburbs are occupied by bankers and bakers, merchants and mechanics, clerics and clerks. Let your intentions be known and you will be besieged, not only by salesmen and builders, but by men who want to lend you a large slice of the price at low interest.”

Urban planner Lewis Mumford had already forecast the coming migration from city to suburb, warning that these migrants of the future might achieve trees and open space but they would pay by being confined into “a narrow, insular life that was all the class-segregated suburb could offer.”

Bartholomew worried that the city’s tax base was going to erode and St. Louis would struggle to provide the necessary level of services, a reality that came not only to St. Louis but virtually every other municipality by the late 1950s and 1960s.

Yet both the Plan Commission and Baumhoff’s article, while labeling coal smoke the primary problem, did not address how to solve it.

It somehow seemed easier to talk around the elephant in the room, rather than figure out how to move the elephant.

A situation really no different today on another coal smoke issue – global warming.

St. Louis Nears a Costly Decision

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.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting. Through January and into February the committee continued to meet.

By Bob Wyss

Today, Feb. 5, 1940, 75 years ago, the Smoke Elimination Committee held its 14th and final meeting before preparing its recommendations for cleaning up St. Louis.

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Decisions were being made at St. Louis City Hall — Wyss photo

Everyone knew that change in the current way homes were heated and industry was run was inevitable. The key question was, how much was it going to cost each citizen of St. Louis? How great was going to be the financial pain?

A few days before the meeting Sam Shelton, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer assigned to the story, interviewed committee chairman James N. Ford Jr. Then he wrote a memo to his bosses, estimating that a report might be ready by mid February.

The solution, Shelton said in the memo, would come down to two options. One would be to buy equipment that was more efficient in burning coal, such as automatic stokers that fed coal into boilers. The second would be to purchase material that produced less smoke, either byproducts of coal or cleaner burning coal.

Prices for such fuel were up to $7.15 a ton. That was substantially higher than what many paid now, where prices could vary from $2 to $4.50 a ton. Ford was confident that the volume for the new coal would be so high that suppliers would be willing to lower their price, although it would still be higher than $4.50 a ton.

While many had been calling for the city to take over the collection and distribution of fuel, Ford was hoping that would not be necessary. Still, it was likely that some type of city-run organization would be set up, if necessary, to be used “as a club to compel dealer cooperation.”

When the committee met on Feb. 5 most members agreed on the same lines as Ford had predicted from his conversation with Shelton.

Prices would come down, Ford said at the meeting. Already the committee had been told of suppliers willing to sell at $5.50 a ton. “We can substantiate the fact that $5.50 is as cheap as $4 for coal on account of the thermal efficiency of it,” said Ford at the meeting.

But would people accept that, committee members wondered.

Ford thought they would. “We have three cardinal principles – health, property values and good living.”

What he did not say is that for decades price had trumped all three of these principles.

It is also no different than today where despite the growing dangers of climate change millions of people continue to support using coal over more expensive alternatives.

The committee adjourned, with Ford and two others agreeing to meet the next day to begin working on the report, the one that all of St. Louis awaited. It would take weeks, not days, before it was released.

St. Louis Called Ugliest City in US

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.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting. Through January they were meeting regularly while newspapers were detailing how the smoke was damaging St. Louis.

By Bob Wyss

“St. Louis is the ugliest city of its size in America.”

Harry Salpeter, a freelance writer for several major publications of the day, made that comment in an essay published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the gloomy, dark winter of 1939-40.

cityview

Scenes like this did not help the reputation of St. Louis — Tucker Archives

It was hard to argue against him. Salpeter laid the blame for St. Louis’ blight on one reason – the coal smoke that was darkening the sky so many days this winter 75 years ago.

A New Yorker, Salpeter made his observations after having been visiting in St. Louis on business during a recent two week period. He said he was still trying “to cough the filthy smoke of St. Louis out of my lungs.”

He said every American city had dirt behind its ears, but St. Louis had dirt all over it. “It breaths smoke as if it were an element in which only it could live, as if it had created for itself, by a form of accelerated Darwinian adaptation, a pair of lungs which had found the breath of untreated bituminous tolerable, instead of foul and deleterious.”

In riding through the city he noticed that block after block of once prosperous houses and commercial buildings seemed to be falling into disrepair and neglect. Perhaps it was not the smoke that was the cause, but he was having difficulty finding more compelling reasons.

He continued: “St Louis, within the pall of its smoke, has the look of a beaten, discouraged city, the look of a city which had been built on large and generous lines by a generation which has already passed on, a city which is not contracting in discouragement and defeat, through the indifference and perhaps the greed of those members of the community who find it easier to run away from smoke than to purify it.”

“I do not say that smoke is the only cause of the stagnant look that is so characteristic of the city. But smoke is the pervasive thing that I see, smell, breathe and cough. It is not only a thing, it is almost the quality of St. Louis.”

Salpeter said he understood that St. Louis had a smoke commissioner. In a statement sure to rattle the city political establishment including Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker, he said what the city needed was an anti-smoke commissioner. It needed the political establishment to get serious.

St. Louis was getting used to such criticism by now. The question was what was it going to do about it?

Even Flag Sitters Can’t Help 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.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting. Through January they were meeting regularly while newspapers were detailing how the smoke was damaging St. Louis.

By Bob Wyss

Frank “Shipwreck” Kelly had a proposition for St. Louis. He would come to the city and join the more than 300 municipal smoke inspectors from his unique vantage point.

Kelly was a former Hollywood stuntman who had originated the craze of flag-pole sitting when he clambered up a pole in 1924 and stayed there for 13 hours. By 1940 the craze Kelly had begun had long passed. Still, he got the publicity on this day that he had been seeking.

City Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker replied that the city had eight inspectors, all certified engineers, and Kelly’s help was not needed.

CoalAd

Coal operators made periodic appeals to the city. Tucker Archives

As January came to a close the city’s Smoke Elimination Committee was nearing the end of its investigation. It had reached out to almost everyone in an effort to find an acceptable political solution. Committee members investigated a range of solutions, including the idea of banning coal entirely. They traveled to Columbus Ohio and Nashville Tennessee to investigate new technologies that promised to process coal and make it clean. Seventy years later such technologies were still being deployed with limited success. They talked to miners, coal merchants, investors and even competitors such as Laclede Gas Company.

Representatives of the retail coal trade told the committee that they were worried that the panel was about to do something radical. Tucker responded that the only radicals were newspapers such as the Globe-Democrat and Star-Times, who had been urging the city to take over the coal business.  On January 14 the Globe-Democrat had been most forceful in arguing that private enterprise could no longer be trusted to solve such an important problem.

Tucker was spending a considerable amount of time telling the committee that such a move was unnecessary. Committee chairman James Ford was so worried about it that he asked for a private meeting with Publisher Joseph Pulitzer II and his editorial staff to convince the Post-Dispatch not to support the issue. While the Post-Dispatch in November had advanced similar ideas, by February it was noticeably silent on the issue.

Publicly, Ford agreed that change was afoot. He described the sentiment in St. Louis towards coal as “a violent feeling.” He added, “There has never been anything in the history of the city where there was such a united, strenuous, mandatory feeling on the part of the public that here is an evil that has to be cured.”

Railroad-cars

Railroads were contributing to the smoke pollution. Tucker Archives

Coal operators and merchants were conciliatory at times and threatening at others.

So were the railroads. In St. Louis, the 15 railroads that ran both passenger and freight cars through the city were represented by the Terminal Railroad Association. Tucker had had discussions with Philip Watson, the president of the Terminal Association, about converting the locomotives to diesel and the organization had pledged to do what it could to cooperate. But the railroads were not buying the more expensive locomotives and as a result just in the last year they had been cited for 416 violations of the smoke law.

Industry would be easier to handle, Tucker believed, because here public opinion could be levied against anyone who refused to either buy better heating equipment or cleaner fuel. “Fundamentally, the most drastic step you can take is to demand that everybody in St. Louis by a certain date use mechanical equipment or burn a smokeless fuel,” said Tucker.

By the end of January with the investigative phrase completed the committee had held 13 meetings, many lasting all day.

Two core problems still remained. One was that even if the city could get everyone to buy more expensive, cleaner fuel, it was not clear who would supply it. By now it was clear that sometime of coal or a coal byproduct that burned cleaner was the only solution. But if it did not come from the nearby coalfields of Southern Illinois, where would it come from?

Their second concern was whether the courts would back a law that required everyone to buy more expensive fuel. Their strongest argument, they believed, would be that they were protecting the health and welfare of every resident of St. Louis.

But would anyone buy that argument after living for decades with such foul air?

It remains a fair question today. Humans are poisoning the upper atmosphere, especially by burning cheap, dirty coal. There are more expensive alternatives that will stop the pollution. No one wants to switch to them. The result is that we are irrevocably changing the planet for decades to come.

Gas Firms Reject a St. Louis Offer

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.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting.  Through January they were meeting regularly while newspapers were detailing how the smoke was damaging St. Louis.

By Bob Wyss

When the Smoke Elimination Committee held a meeting in late January several members believed that they had a solution to the city’s smoke problem.

Instead of burning coal in home burners, residents could convert their heating systems to burning gas.  James Ford, the committee chairman, told executives of the Laclede Gas Co. that they could cash in on the city’s plan to sharply curtail the burning of Illinois coal.

Germany Coal Power Plant

Laclede’s 1940 story echoes a similar pattern today using coal-fired generation such as here in Germany. AP Image

Surprisingly Laclede officials had no interest in this potential bonanza. The firm only sold gas to a select number of industrial and wealthy customers. Converting coal burners to gas in homes was prohibitively expensive, executives said.  Besides, they added, the poor had a history of lousy credit and a worse collection record.

Also, there was not enough gas available on the coldest days of winter when demand peaked.  Even cities such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City that relied on gas ran out in cold weather.

“On days like we had last week, it would take three billion cubic feet an hour,” said Harry F. Perkins, a consulting engineer.  “Gas has its place, but beyond a certain point it can’t be expanded.”

There was some truth in what Laclede officials said.  But very little.  Besides discriminating against the poor, the company for years had engaged in what the St. Louis Star-Times called “corporate incest.”  The company had a government sanctioned monopoly and it was using it to profit its affiliate companies while charging outrageous prices to customers.  Very little of this would have been known, if the Star-Times had not launched a major investigation in 1937.  Even afterwards, however, few continued to understand the extent of the subterfuge.

Since the 19th Century the first use of gas was provided by so-called town or manufactured gas, produced from coke and other products.  Then in 1918 drillers in the North Texas Panhandle had stumbled onto the first of a series of huge natural gas fields.  At first, it was considered a nuisance because there was no market for it.  Then, advances in welding techniques produced a thin-walled, high-tensile strength pipe capable of being pressurized so that it could transport large volumes of natural gas over long distances.

By 1940 pipelines were snaking northward and they had connected to Laclede.  Yet the company still had a strong investment in its manufactured gas operation.  Rather than expanding, it mixed its manufactured gas with natural gas and sold it for 14.9 cents per therm (a therm equals 100,000 BTU).

In contrast, natural gas in other cities were paying much lower prices: 6.6 cents in Joplin, Mo., 5.5 cents in Cleveland, and 2.7 cents in St. Joseph, Mo.

Laclede bought its natural gas from the Mississippi River Fuel Corp. and together those two firms had succeeded in opposing any other natural gas pipelines from coming into St. Louis to provide a more competitive price.  Plus, through a series of complex agreements Laclede had worked out with affiliated companies, the use of natural gas was banned in St. Louis at least through 1947.  Only a mixture of town and natural gas was permitted.

What the Star-Times investigation had shown was that Laclede had made a significant investment in its manufactured gas operation, and it wanted to capitalize on that decision.  At a time when the rest of the nation was embracing natural gas as a cleaner, cheaper solution, Laclede was using its corporate powers to oppose it.

The decision was not really that different than what has been happening in recent years in the U.S. and around the world.  Companies and entire nations have invested in coal-fired electric generation and burned coal for greater industrial production.  Many have been reluctant to abandon those strategies and investments, even though it was clear that natural gas would produce far less carbon and global warming.

Laclede Gas was still years from recognizing the vast and lucrative heating market that it would eventually tap after World War II.

No, gas was not the immediate answer 75 years ago to the coal smoke suffocating St. Louis.  The resistance was simply too fierce.  Sometimes history does repeat itself.

Illinois Offers Support and Threats

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.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting.  Through January they were meeting regularly while newspapers were detailing how the smoke was damaging St. Louis.

By Bob Wyss

Shortly after the first wave of smoke began to smother St. Louis in November the mayor of Belleville, Ill. offered to help in any way he or the city could be of assistance.  In mid January the Smoke Elimination Committee met with Illinois coal suppliers, who promised to work with the city.

No one in St. Louis quite believed any of these pledges.

Virtually all of the coal burned in St. Louis was coming from nearby Southern Illinois. The rich deposits of bituminous soft coal were the residue of plants and organic material from a time tens of millions of years before when the Mississippi River valley was a vast swamp. While the quantity was great, the quality was not.  The coal released fumes and Nepollutants when burned, especially sulfur.  It also had a disturbingly high level of noncombustible rock, especially slate, that reduced its BTU value.

But it was cheap, and when St. Louis tried over the years to find ways to only buy cleaner coal the operators and merchants who supplied the city had been conciliatory at times and threatening at others.  Calvin Johnson, an Illinois state representative speaking in behalf of coal operators, said the coal industry wanted to work with St. Louis.  “We need St. Louis for a market for everything we produce, not only coal,” he said.  But others warned that they could not survive without St. Louis and the city could not survive without their coal.

The coal here was plentiful, underlying two-thirds of the state in beds that were relatively flat and thick.  French-Canadian explorers had found the first outcroppings near the Illinois River in 1670 and coal had been harvested since the early 19th Century, about the time St. Louis was developing.  At first operators had used conventional mining but more recently a few operators had turned to a new technology, strip mining.  The effects of strip mining were especially noticeable in the region called Little Egypt, named after nearby Cairo, where in 1940 one could see huge mounds of yellow clay, destroyed vegetation and open pits.  Coal production in Illinois had also peaked in 1918 and the Depression had been particularly brutal.

Coal operations at times were harsh.  While the area’s economy was based more on farming than coal mining, the region had a violent streak, especially in the coalfields.  Thomas Mitchell had created the United Mine Workers in 1898 by walking from mine to mine in Southern Illinois organizing workers. When a strike broke out in 1922 in nearby Williamson County, more than 20 guards and strikebreakers were beaten to death.  It was so violent that some of the bodies were mutilated.  No one was ever convicted for the Bloody Williamson uprising.  When another strike occurred in 1932 and 1933 the state’s militia was called in and stayed more than six months while violence, bombings and killings continued.

Customers also faced a demanding supplier.  For the last 20 years Southern Illinois threatened a boycott whenever St. Louis considered a plan to clean its air.  In 1936 the city considered an ordinance that did not prohibit the sale of Illinois coal but did required that the coal be “washed” or cleaned before it could be sold within the city limits.   Illinois opposed the measure and it almost did not get passed until after December, 1936 when the city underwent yet another Christmas smoke pall.

After its passage Illinois coal suppliers said they would not work with the city and they tried to convince residents outside of St. Louis to boycott any goods produced or sold in the city.

Coal operators in nearby Belleville predicted that 50 percent of their industry would be wiped out by the onerous and financially ruinous requirements.  The Progressive Miners of America predicted, “10,000 will starve if the ordinance is passed and St. Louis will lose the trade of the coal producing counties.”  A mining company from nearby St. Clair County in Illinois filed a federal court suit, arguing that the ordinance was discriminatory, unreasonable and interfered with interstate commerce.

Two Illinois-based chambers of commerce in Belleville and Collinsville had gone so far as to take out full-page ads in both the 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.”  The boycott campaign even got an assist from the Illinois governor.

St. Louis Mayor Bernard Dickmann went to Belleville and tried to reassure the city’s critics, explaining, “St. Louis wanted their business but not their dirt.”  His comments were not well received.

The boycott calls of three years earlier never really got going, but only because the ordinance was so ineffective.

By now the Smoke Elimination Committee knew the only solution would be to stop burning soft, cheap coal from Southern Illinois.  But how was it going to keep peace with such unruly neighbors?

News Gets Blacker in 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.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting. Through January they were meeting regularly while newspapers were detailing how the smoke was damaging St. Louis.

By Bob Wyss

Three news stories this week further clouded the terribly black winter of 1940 for St. Louis.

They came from extremely varied sources – one of the nation’s most respected magazines, a historical report by a local historical society and a scientific summary by botanists.

The one that produced the most attention came from Life magazine. In a story titled Speaking of Pictures – Blackout in St. Louis it published several photographs taken by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the coal smoke that had been blanketing the city for more than two months now.

The story said readers might assume the photos were of a European city, but that assumption would be wrong. “St. Louis has long been a sooty city,” the article stated. “It is probably the smokiest municipality in the country, worse even than Pittsburgh.”

As St. Louis already knew, the article blamed the thick air pollution on the soft coal residents liked to buy from Illinois.

Solutions, the article reported, ranged from having air planes fly about the clouds and seed them with chemicals in an attempt to get them to disperse, or installing huge fans that would blow the smoke away.

City officials led by Mayor Bernard Dickmann were upset by the story and the shame it was bringing to St. Louis, but they conceded it was now up to the Smoke Elimination Committee to find a solution.

In some respects, the other two articles were even more alarming.

The Missouri Historical Society reported that research was indicating that the smoke had been a problem in the city since at least 1823. In the most recent issue of the Society’s bulletin, it quoted from an article in the Missouri Republican of January 22, 1823. The story stated: “The smoke in the atmosphere which appears particularly in the fall is a phenomenon that remains to be accounted for…It is well known that this smoke has been in some instances so dense as to render it necessary to use candles in mid-day.”

The city in 1823 was relatively young. Founded in 1764, it had not become the territorial capitol until after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. But by1848 the city had grown to 62,000 and another publication article reported that the smoke problem was worsening. The Western Journal, a monthly magazine published two letters from prominent citizens complaining that the city’s smoke problem needed to be resolved immediately. One of the letters writers said that St. Louis was heading towards becoming “the emporium of disease in place of energy, genius and skill” because of its air pollution.

The third publication to weigh in was the annual report of the Missouri Botanical Garden which summarized why it had been such a sound decision to begin moving much of its operations out of St. Louis to new facilities 25 miles away in Gray Summit.

Over the last nine years, report stated, there had been an average of 188 fewer hours of sunshine annually at the city garden as opposed to the more rural facilities in Gray Summit. While the numbers varied per month, the greatest difference occurred in the winter, when coal smoke from winter fires was especially thick.

The news 75 years ago today in St. Louis was indeed dark.

Toll Mounts to Keep St. Louis Clean

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.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting.  Through January they were meeting regularly while newspapers were detailing how the smoke was damaging St. Louis.

By Bob Wyss

In the Mudd household every Monday was black.

“Every week we have what we call Black Monday,” Mrs. Harvey Mudd told a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  “Cook housemaid and outside help turn to.  I drive my own car while the chauffeur turns houseman.  They scrub, polish, vacuum clean.”

The house had 50 windows.  Half were washed one week.  The balance was washed the following week.  Rugs were periodically cleaned, as was the wall paper.  There were two sets of curtains, two sets of slip covers.  One set was in place while the other set was being washed.

“Of course, when one buys house furnishings in St. Louis,” Mrs. Mudd added, one cannot buy for beauty.  First one must ask, will it wash, will it clean, is it a color that won’t show the dirt.”

The Post-Dispatch writer was Marguerite Martyn and in her story she discovered that no matter the income, smoke was crippling St. Louis.

It should not have been a surprise.

The Citizens Smoke Abatement League in 1926 had estimated that the total costs of smoke and the damage it was causing to the city was $19,147,000.  Today that figure calculated for inflation would be $250 million.

Households paid a significant price in the extra cost of painting, cleaning and restoring wallpaper, curtains and the need for additional lighting – $4,940,000.

The additional cost just of doing the laundry and dry cleaning was $2,432,000 more than what it would cost in New York, Philadelphia or Boston.

Meanwhile the city’s 10,000 retail stores were paying an additional $6,400,000 not just in cleaning costs but in the loss of merchandise and service from the smoke.  Public buildings, including hotels, hospitals and government buildings were paying another $600,000.

One woman, Jacqueline Seward, told Marguerite Martyn that she was paying $30 a month for dry cleaning but worried that soon the dry cleaners might have to shut down if the smoke persisted.

Some had shut down on the infamous Black Tuesday in late November when the city was blanketed with coal smoke.

Martyn talked to the owner of one laundry company that had temporarily closed.

“We use a lot of air blown in from the outside in our drying process,” the owner explained.  “Even with filters the smoke so filled the place things were dirtier after they had been dried than before we started cleaning them, so we closed down until the smoke pall cleared away.”

Smoke was not good for the laundry business.  On bright, sunny days people wanted to look fresh and clean.  On a dark, smoky day, people took the attitude that it was worthless to clean their clothes, they would only get dirty again.

But Mrs. Seward for one had no plans to cease her cleaning.  In certain rooms she had installed window frames with muslin to screen the air.  She cleaned those screens once a week, and each week she found them incredibly filthy.

The screens were a last resort to protect her three-year-old son, Dwight.  Until she installed them, or closed the windows entirely, he would wake up in the middle of the night choking.

In all of the numbers compiled so far, no one had tried to estimate the cost of the health of St. Louis.  That tabulation was coming.