Coal At Christmas Brightens

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

Lumps of coal for Christmas?

Some in St. Louis in the winter of 1940-41 welcomed the gift of coal, which was discounted for some and free for others.

The concept of heating assistance to the poor generally was unknown 75 years ago, but it was being discovered in St. Louis. Prices for a basket of coal, about 60 pounds and the only affordable option for anyone of a low income, had doubled since the city had banned cheaper but dirtier coal.

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Efforts were made to make sure Christmas in 1940 in St. Louis was warm and bright.

In late November a group representing a range of low-income residents met with Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker seeking to find a way to lower prices. Charles E. Stovall, editor of the St. Louis Call, which was a newspaper for African Americans, proposed that basket sellers could lower their prices if the city could cover their losses.

Baskets, which a year ago had sold for 20 cents, were now selling for 40 cents. Stovall suggested that 25 cents would be affordable.

A few days later Tucker announced a plan that would lower the price of a 60-pound basket to 25 cents. A consortium of 135 coal yards around the city agreed to sell up to four baskets during the winter to residents who could show that they were living on a low or fixed income.

The city earlier in the year had set aside $300,000 to buy coal for poor residents in an emergency. However, under the voluntary plan proposed by the coal yards, that money would not be needed.

Businessman James L. Ford then went a step beyond this, and inspired others to do the same.

Ford won the St. Louis Award, given annually for an outstanding civic achievement. Ford won for his efforts as chairman of the Smoke Elimination Committee which had investigation had to rid the city of the coal smoke that had smothered it for decades each winter.

The award carried a $1,000 which Ford contributed, along with another $500, to a heating fund for low-income residents. This then prompted more donations from the mine operators in Arkansas and Oklahoma, 600 miners in Arkansas, and the Frisco Railroad, which had been carrying the coal to St. Louis.

The coal miners sacrificed a half of a day’s wages, which amounted to $1,500.

The result was that 33,000 baskets of coal were to be distributed to needy families throughout St. Louis. By Christmas eve more than 5,000 families had been identified to receive the free coal. That’s when the first trainloads of coal arrived and coal dealers bustled to get the work done by the end of the day. A second shipment was delivered the day after Christmas.

“We should say this is something unusual, if not unique,” reported the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in the form of Christmas gifts.”


Most Neighbors Agree To Curb Smoke

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 air does not recognize city limits.

Pollution, and in the case of St. Louis 75 years ago, coal smoke will drift wherever the wind takes it.

In the winter of 1940 some were beginning to suspect that the smoke was traveling from the suburbs to the city.

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Clear skies over landmarks such as Union Station had become common in St. Louis in the winter of 1940-41.

By early December the number of days of thick smoke in St. Louis as measured by the U.S. Weather Bureau was down by more than 50 percent. There had only been 5 days where visibility was poor and two of those were aided significantly by fog as opposed to smoke. A year before the number had been 11.

But moderate smoke was up markedly, more than 150 percent, from 4 to 15. Much of it seemed to be drifting from neighboring cities, according to some reports. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported seeing smoke drifting from chimneys in East St. Louis across the river into St. Louis.

It’s a common dilemma that has plagued air pollution experts for centuries, and it has only become more complicated as the number of automobile tailpipes increased and smokestacks got bigger and higher.

St. Louis decided to ask its neighbors to join its crusade.

Mayor Bernard Dickmann sent letters to surrounding cities on both sides of the river to cooperate with the St. Louis campaign to reduce smoke. He sent photos of the changes in air quality in the city, copies of the ordinance requiring all residents and businesses to reduce air emissions, and offers of assistance in enforcement.

He told a reporter that what had already occurred in St. Louis could easily be replicated elsewhere.

One of the first to respond was the mayor of Belleville, Ill., where coal miners and operators had been especially upset by the city’s banning of cheap but dirty coal from Southern Illinois mines.

Mayor George Remusnider said the St. Louis anti-smoke campaign had been run by “citizens whose ideas are more or less fantastic.” The ordinance adopted back in April had been a “rush act.”

He said it was hurting low-income families that could not afford the more expensive fuel, it had thrown thousands of coal miners out of work, it had rendered worthless a perfectly sound fuel, and it was hurting trade between St. Louis and Southern Illinois.

But Remusnider’s remarks, which were buried in a story in the Post-Dispatch on Dec. 13, were the exception.

In a front page story the day before mayors from seven municipalities in St. Louis County that ringed St. Louis agreed to work with Dickmann and the city. Five had already adopted ordinances that they said could be enforced and adapted to meet the city’s standards. Two others said they were interested in enacting similar laws.

“We feel as St. Louis does about the desirability of abating smoke and will cooperate in any way we can,” said Mayor B.W. LaTourette of Richmond Heights, Mo.

Clayton, Mo. Mayor Alfred H. Kerth said: “Clayton is appreciative of what St. Louis is doing and St. Louis can depend on us to help eliminate smoke.”

In Brentwood, Mo. Mayor Jerome Howe said that smoke from residential chimneys did not seem to be a problem but that several industries were “creating a lot of smoke.” He said the city had considered adopting an anti-smoke ordinance two years before, had not acted, but would consider taking it up again.

Smoke from railroads seemed to be the major concern in Webster Grove, Mo. The town was also receptive to considering changes.

In addition, University City, Mo. Mayor Matt C. Fogarty said that he was president of an association of municipal leaders within the county, the League of Municipalities. He said he would be willing to bring the issue up before all local executives.

“St. Louis has been doing a good job,” he said, “and we are willing to help in any way we can.”

Boycott Disappears With Smoke

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 disappearance of black clouds of smoke at noon was not the only hazard that had disappeared so far in St. Louis.

The threatened boycott of St. Louis goods by the citizens of Southern Illinois also had never arrived. Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker was convinced it never would.

“It was easier to talk than to act,” observed Oscar Allison who wrote a 1978 unpublished research paper on the smoke controversy. Further, he said, the boycott was fizzling “because of the enormity of the task of trying to stop trade with St. Louis over such a wide area.”


The boycott may have failed because Illinois coal miners did not suffer the way they had first anticipated.  

Economists have often said that boycotts over political issues can be difficult to sustain. In Illinois the boycott never really ever got off the ground.

Tucker, in speeches and columns in newspapers, argued that there was no economic incentive to sustain the boycott.

Coal purchased by customers in St. Louis only constituted a very small percentage of the commerce of Southern Illinois. The primary businesses at the time were manufacturing and agriculture.

Protesters had argued that St. Louis was putting 35,000 coal miners out of work by its refusal to buy low-grade high sulfur coal.

But Tucker, in an article published in the St. Louis Commerce and later reprinted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, argued that such a number was nothing more than a fantasy.

While Southern Illinois did employ close to 35,000 coal miners (the official number three years earlier had been 27,151), St. Louis was not the region’s only customer.   If St. Louis totally withdrew from the Illinois coal market, Tucker estimated it would only cause 3,250 miners to lose their jobs.

That was not the case. Higher quality coal was still being purchased and even the lower grades were acceptable if customers had the right equipment to reduce emissions.

Therefore, said Tucker, 800 miners was a better estimate.

“Opposed to the welfare of those 800, or even the entire 3,250, must necessarily be placed the welfare of more than 800,000 residents of St. Louis,” wrote Tucker.

Plus, with war underway in Europe and the economy improving nationally and in St. Louis, employment opportunities were rising.

Tucker, in a separate speech in Rollo, Ill. in September 1940 suggested that the net impact likely by that rise in prosperity was at the very least zero. In other words, the 800 jobs lost by the ordinance were cancelled out by an increase in 800 jobs by the improved economy.

Whether Southern Illinois bought that argument did not matter. What did was that Southern Illinois was buying St. Louis products.

The boycott had failed. It would never return.


Smoke Inspectors Shoot, Capture Suspect Coal Bootleggers

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

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St.Louis was fighting coal bootleggers to stop the clouds that had pestered the city for decades.

Sandy Ford did not run until after the city inspector flagged down his truck on a cold winter night. Henry Kessler suspected that Ford was hauling bootleg coal and that was confirmed when Ford jumped out of the truck and ran away.

Kessler pulled out his revolver and fired. But he only aimed at the asphalt and Ford did not stop running.

A second man in the truck, Robert McFadden, was charged with hauling illegal coal. Ford gave himself up an hour later at the police station and was also arrested.

Ford contended that the only reason he had fled was because he knew that he and McFadden would need a bail bondsman.

He brought one with him to the police station, and the two men were quickly released.

By the end of the week 20 coal peddlers had been arrested for selling bootleg South Illinois coal in St. Louis where it was illegal. This was January, 1941 and the reason the city had drastically increased its staff of smoke inspectors up to 18.

Bootlegging coal dealers faced misdemeanor charges, which meant that they could usually avoid jail, but they also could lose their licenses for such activity. Many were caught by inspectors stationed on the bridges from Illinois to St. Louis.

Today, the very term smoke inspector sounds quaint, more related to tobacco or fire prevention than air pollution. But beginning in the late 19th Century and continuing into the 1950s cities throughout North America and Europe routinely relied upon smoke inspection staffs as one way to control pollution from the burning of coal.

The first efforts to control smoke in cities such as St. Louis began in municipal health departments. Some cities would create separate smoke inspection offices both to enforce existing laws and to run educational programs. The number of inspectors could vary widely. New York City at one point reportedly had 400 smoke inspectors while nearby Philadelphia only had two. They could also range from trained engineers to common laborers.

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Smoke Inspectors gathered at their annual conference in 1904.

In St. Louis the Division of Smoke Regulation was created in the Department of Public Safety in 1937. Smoke Commissioner Raymond R. Tucker and his staff of 13 smoke inspectors were responsible for examining furnaces, inspecting coal supplies and educating the public.

Once the new ordinance was passed in April 1940 Tucker and his staff also relied upon private citizens to help that identify specific chimneys emitting bilious clouds of black smoke. Normally a homeowner or small business owner would not be cited for a violation of the law unless they were caught at least three times. Often they simply did not understand how to operate stokers and other mechanical equipment added on to boilers to reduce pollution.

But it was never an easy task and often inspectors would be torn between their responsibilities. What was more important, inspecting wholesale yards for signs of illegal coal, that is soft coal with a high sulfur content, or being out on the streets searching for suspect chimneys?

Sometimes it was not even clear to Tucker who he should be most worried about.

Shortly after the new ordinance was adopted in April someone claiming to be a city alderman proposed selling a list of people who had been violating the law but not prosecuted. He phoned and asked George Hale, secretary for the St. Louis Stoker Association, if his members would buy the list.

Hale conferred with his members who agreed that they would prefer dealing with Tucker directly if such a list existed. Tucker confirmed that there was such a list but it was confidential.

Tucker then called a meeting of his staff and told them it would be “too bad” if someone in his office passed the list to anyone. The story quickly spread to the city’s three newspapers.

Hale may have known the name of the “alderman” but by the time the newspaper reporters got to him he had forgotten it.

Banning coal was causing all kinds of unexpected headaches.



Cold Arrives But What’s Missing?

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

And then, finally, came the cold.

But not the smoke

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All of St. Louis, even those meeting a train at Union Station, waited as the cold began to arrive for the city’s spate of coal smoke.

The first cold snap arrived Oct. 10. The sky over St. Louis was clear, while smoke covered much of East St. Louis across the river, which had no ban on dirty coal. Slowly the smoke drifted on a westerly breeze into downtown St. Louis.

The East St. Louis smoke returned again to downtown the morning of Nov. 8.

But the real test arrived Nov. 11 and continued for five days when a 63 miles per hour gale struck St. Louis. It brought with it the coldest temperature the city had seen this early in the season since record keeping began in 1873. The average was 26.4 degrees, which was 4.3 degrees below the mean expected in mid-January.

This time there was no westerly breeze and no smoke from East St. Louis.

Everyone noticed the clear skies.

A resident wrote the mayor’s office to report that the new, more expensive but clear coal did make life easier. He no longer had to clean the range before his wife baked, he did not have to worry about blackening his neighbors clothes drying on a line when the wind blew, and the coal was so much higher quality that he could bank it so it could last all night.

He called it “a wonderful fuel that helps us in every way.”

Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker said calls to his office had virtually ceased, except for a few complaints about the price.

The winter blooming witch hazel at Shaw’s Garden was bright yellow. In past years blossoms had turned a dirty, rusting brown.

While it was a good beginning, neither Tucker or James L. Ford, who had chaired the Smoke Elimination Committee, were ready to declare that the heavy blankets of smoke would not return.

For decades people in St. Louis and other cities throughout the U.S. and Europe had contended that the noxious clouds of smoke from coal were the price that had to be paid. No one, they argued would either pay more to heat their homes or runs their businesses. No one would put pollution controls on their boilers or machinery or pay a higher price for coal.

But St. Louis was proving that it could be done.

Tucker estimated that as many as 5,000 dwellings around the city had installed stokers that produced fewer emissions, or had converted to oil burners.

Plus, many buying the more expensive coal was discovering that Turner was right – its BTU content was far greater. The same amount of clean coal would burn more than two times longer than the dirtier coal St. Louis had used for years.


This type of smoke from trains passing through St. Louis had been more common each winter. Photo Tucker Archive, Washington University

There were a few problems.

The city was allowing any leftover coal from the year before to be burned. But by the November cold snap Tucker said those supplies were pretty much gone.

Some residents did not understand how to use the stokers or other mechanical equipment. A smoky chimney often drew the attention of one of Tucker’s 13 smoke inspectors, and would lead to a lesson in how to use a stoker.

Inspectors were also out searching for what were being described as coal bootleggers, dealers selling coal that would burn so dirty that it was illegal. Tucker indicated he had no plans to reduce enforcement and that he hoped to hire more inspectors.

Not surprisingly, the poor seemed to be paying more than anyone else, at least proportionately.

A basket of coal that last winter had cost 20 cents was now double the price. Tucker’s inspection staff could not do much about the price, but they were rigidly inspecting the baskets to make sure a city requirement of 80 pounds per basket.

The Workers Alliance, which advocated for the poor, began calling for the city to lift the restrictions on coal, at least for residents on relief and the WPA rolls.

Tucker agreed that he believed the poor were paying too much. But he gave no indication that he was going to back down in insisting that everyone needed to contribute to cleaner skies.

By Nov. 16 the cold snap began to lift.   By mid afternoon it was 50 degrees and sunny. No one wanted to complain about that.

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.”

Coal’s Footprint Stains Daily Life

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 on December 5 a gathering of 52 citizens declared that change was coming..

By Bob Wyss

It is difficult to imagine in the 21st Century what it was like for residents of the first half of the 20th Century to live with coal.  The pollution was bad and the soot and dust were terrible.  It stained women’s gloves, soaked into their hair, and discolored the curtains and wallpaper in their homes.

Louis G. Brenner grew up next to Tower Hill Park in south central St. Louis and he used to cut through the Botanical Garden on this way to school.  “I can remember walking to school and being able to stamp your foot on the sidewalk and leave a footprint where the impact of your foot blew the soot aside,” he said.  “I can remember the days when it should have been bright, sunny and the air was just horribly hazy with just smoke.  Aw, it was bad.”

Living with coal meant more than the smoke and dust. It was the awful clatter of the coal being dumped in the alley outside the house, the scramble to get it down the coal chute into the cellar before it got dark, the chore of banking the coal downstairs every night before the family went to bed and then the task of removing the clinkers from the ash.  “It was just always a dirty, dirty mess,” said Mildred Niermann.

Women, even those wealthy enough to employ cleaning help, reported that they or their staff spent much of their time cleaning. Soot had a way of getting into every home, even if they did not burn soft coal, and even if their windows were all shut and newspaper was wedged into the cracks and seams.   One woman said that she was “eternally cleaning.  We clean out own wall paper and wash and paint our own woodwork and hardly get one room done than we begin another.”  She lived in a huge house in what was traditionally one of the smokiest neighborhoods in the city. Another said that every Monday was “Black Monday. Cook, housemaid and outside help turn out.  I drive my own car while the chauffeur turns houseman.  They scrub, polish, vacuum clean.” She added, “Of course, when one buys house furnishings in St. Louis, 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?”

There was also the task of dealing with the coal itself.  Most homes and apartments bought coal by the ton and had it delivered by truck.  Usually it was dumped in the back alleys that were common in St. Louis, and the coal would make a loud, clattering racket.  One could pay the coal men to transfer it to the chute leading into the basement, or one could save some money and shovel it oneself.

Alice Rapp Bennett was only about seven years old when her family asked her to start helping when she would get home from school.  She remembers it was an awful, messy task.  The coal shovels would take forever to transfer the fuel from the alley to the coal chute, where it would make a thunderous racket when it toppled into the bin.  Coal dust would rise from the pen and even up the chute.  It would take hours to settle and unless the bin was fully enclosed the dust would settle throughout the cellar and sometimes seep into the house.   When Alice’s father got home he would help, but the family often had to race against the darkness to get it cleared out of the alley. If darkness came first, a lantern had to be placed by the pile to warn motorists.

The coal furnaces also were very demanding.   Until mechanical stokers were added, which allowed the coal to be fed automatically into the furnace, someone would have to go down every few hours and shovel the coal in manually.  Mechanical stokers were around in 1939, but not very many people had them. The task of shoveling was especially onerous at night. Every evening before the family would retire someone would have to go downstairs and bank the furnace for the night.  That supply usually lasted until around four in the morning, when someone would have to return again.  Sometimes the task was left to an adult but in larger families the children quickly learned the responsibility of the early morning coal duty.  Children also learned rapidly that letting the fire die would not be tolerated in a house that could quickly turn stone cold.  Sometimes it took hours to get the heat back.

Finally, there was the task of removing the ashes and clinkers, the black metallic residue that had not burned.  Again, as the shovel dug into the dry ash and metal the dust would rise from the furnace.  When it was dumped into a metal wash pan it clattered and the dust rose a second time.

No one liked coal. Kids might complain, parents were more tolerant, but no one yet had come up with a cheaper, better alternative for staying warm in the winter.