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.

Leaders Hear Radical Ideas

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. The three city newspaper’s began a campaign to eliminate the smoke, but the coal dealers and producers who had created the problem had always fought and won previous efforts to end the pollution.

By Bob Wyss

A week had passed since the worst of the black smoke had descended. It had not relented. True, the smoke lifted for a while, but it always came back. It may not have been as thick as a week ago, but it was unavoidable.

The decision to fight the smoke was also unavoidable. Mayor Bernard Dickmann had invited 52 citizens to City Hall today in the wake of the smoke crisis. They came from business, the universities, civic organizations and from government. They were virtually all men, except for Jeanne Blythe of the St. Louis League of Women Voters. It was an extraordinary gathering that was destined to feature some radical ideas.

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Fifty-two leaders come to City Hall

It was also a staged event. Dickmann made it clear very early that he had a resolution that he wanted passed that involved appointing a small committee to investigate the smoke problem. He told the crowd he was looking for strong measures, although it was not a time for “hysteria. This is not a program you can settle within 30 days. But we can solve it over a three or four-year program if we keep our feet on the ground and handle it constructively, where it will do the least harm.”

Three proposals were presented to the gathering.

Joseph M. Darst, the city’s director of public welfare, proposed what he called an educational campaign. In actuality, it involved stationing city employees (hired under the federal WPA or Works Progress Administration) on each block where the pollution was the worst. The workers would seek out the chimneys creating the biggest problems and work to teach the owners how to cut the amount of smoke they were producing.

Frank J. McDevitt suggested buying the city’s major gas company, Laclede Gas Light Co., and using its facilities to convert coal into cleaner burning coke. Laclede, like most gas companies at that time, for decades had been manufacturing gas from coal and coke on a small scale.

The most extreme measure came from Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker, who suggested producing a massive amount of the manufactured gas from coke and coal, selling it to Laclede, which would then sell the gas to residential customers. Under this proposal the city would go from one that relied primarily on coal for its energy to one that instead used gas. Tucker also wanted to take immediate steps to stop the many trains passing through the city from burning coal, by forcing them to convert to oil or diesel.

None of the ideas were put to a vote. Instead, Dickmann introduced his resolution that called for a new smoke committee that would investigate and report back to the mayor. Committee members were to have no ties to any particular fuel. It was approved unanimously.

Dickman was pleased.

“Spread the word,” he told the reporters who had been waiting outside. “Your presence here today shows that this is not a task that St. Louis can’t accomplish, and we will do it.”

He had enough time to joke about a letter he had recently received from a glass company. The writer had suggested that St. Louis consider putting a glass ceiling over the city.

Dickmann did not add that the idea was not that much more radical then finding a way to end the smoke that had been invading St. Louis each winter for the past few decades.