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.


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.”