St Louis was simultaneously blessed for growth and cursed for livability by its proximity to the rich bituminous coal deposits of Southern Illinois. It made for cheap power, which allowed energy intensive industries like brick works and steel makers to thrive here. Most residents followed suit (or is it soot?) and burned coal to heat their homes. The smoke from soft coal hung heavy in the air of St Louis every winter, dimming the daylight and causing respiratory issues. City efforts at smoke abatement through legislation reached back to the late 1860s, but the power of the coal business and low cost for home use kept it a perceived necessary evil.
By the 1930’s, the situation approached absurdity, with the need to use streetlights and car headlights in the day. The smoke deposited a layer of black particles, uniformly draped on buildings, sidewalks, and even shirt collars.
In 1933, Bernard Dickmann became mayor. In the course of eight years in office, he realized several key accomplishments, not least of which were the creation of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, and the beginning of acquisition and clearing of land for the Jefferson Expansion Memorial, now the Gateway Arch.
His two terms spanned much of the Great Depression. It was a time of rapid technological change as well. He named a good friend and accomplished engineer, Frank McDevitt, as commissioner for streets and sewers. The two men led a movement toward improved services and increased revenues. They first introduced parking meters to St Louis, and required the purchase of drivers licenses for city residents. With federal relief funds, 9,600 electric streetlights were installed to replace existing naphtha and gas lights. McDevitt used revenues and grants to take on local projects like the mitigation of our ever growing garbage volume. When Dickmann took office, garbage collection in the city was still being carried out with mules and wagons. By October 1936, McDevitt had 45 trucks for hauling waste and two more for dead animals. 130 city mules were soon bound for auction.
With more efficient collection, McDevitt set about improving solid waste processing. In the early 1930s, the city disposed of its garbage by selling it to hog farms in Illinois, at the cost of $1.00 a ton. He secured city approval to build three giant mechanized grinders, which handled up to 300 tons of waste per day. A staff of three men with pitchforks combed the waste at each grinder for bottles and cans. Mixed with water, the effluent from the plant at Vandeventer and Forest Park Boulevard was fed into the Vandeventer sewer, from there to the Mill Creek Sewer and finally into the Mississippi River. This was certainly an “out of sight, out of mind” solution, but did remove the waste from St Louis without incinerating or piling it into giant hills. It eventually put about 100 free-lance waste collectors, also supplying the hog trade, out of business. This probably boosted the sales of grain to hog suppliers, if giving the hogs themselves a somewhat better defined diet.
In February of 1934, McDevitt claimed that the primary source of the recurrent shroud of smoke enveloping the city was the 100,000 home furnaces, each burning soft coal in a poorly designed boiler. He maintained that by building city-run central systems, cheaper cleaner heat would result. At the time, there were only two central heating systems in St Louis, both operated by Union Electric. (One, the Ashley Unit, still provides steam heat to buildings downtown.) He argued that buying better fuel in huge volumes, and running in a non-profit way would make central power more affordable for homeowners as well. Questions remained:
Would the city be able to run a power plant economically for the five months of active heating demand, while maintaining it for twelve, and would it serve sparsely populated areas as economically as the highly concentrated downtown area? McDevitt proposed issuing a survey to canvass opinion on the idea.
The St Louis Star And Times was bullish in its assessment. It stated:
“ Moral suasion and propaganda have been tried for fifty years and have utterly failed. You can’t talk clouds of smoke out of the atmosphere while low-grade coal is being carelessly burned in thousands of furnaces.” (Something must be done) “toward ridding St Louis of its greatest business incubus and health menace. This city cannot prosper with a national reputation as the smokiest city in the United States.”
The city aldermen were, if somewhat non-committal, at least mostly of a mind in stating that a survey certainly couldn’t hurt.
It is at this point that we hear from 44 year old architect John Albury Bryan. Six years earlier he wrote an influential book, Missouri’s Contribution To American Architecture, and was chair of the St Louis Historical Buildings Committee. He moved to Lafayette Square in 1949, but it is sweet to find that his interest in the Square predated his move there by a full 15 years. He wrote to the Times:
I have been much interested in the municipal heating plants proposed by Mr McDevitt; and would like to suggest a location for the first plant in a residential area.
The district surrounding Lafayette Park is one of the most compactly built in the city, the houses being large and mainly occupied by roomers. This means the maximum amount of heat would be bought and used. The four churches on the square would no doubt be glad to buy their heat rather than fire their own furnaces. In that way they would save a large amount in fire insurance premiums. Moreover, the thirty-acre park in the center of this district is the oldest public park in St Louis – the municipality having acquired it 99 years ago next month. Anything that will reduce the volume of smoke in this neighborhood and thus promote the growth of trees and shrubs in that park would be a civic investment. Lafayette Park is the third highest elevation in the city, so that this experiment would have a better chance of success than one tried in a lower area.
The city now owns a large piece of ground at Lafayette Avenue and Preston place, and a building combining a heating plant and police station ought to supply all the houses on the south and east sides of the park. At the northwest corner of the park there is a considerable space of vacant ground along Caroline Street west of Missouri Avenue, and a second plant located there could take care of the north and west sides of the park.
No other section of St Louis has been a good residential area for so long a time as this district I have outlined and real estate values there will continue to hold their own for many years to come, especially if the smoke can be eliminated
JOHN A. BRYAN.
As it turned out, the program was slowed by investigations into hiring of contractors for the city grinders, and strong opposition from powerful coal merchants. Meanwhile, Union Electric expanded electrification, replacing coal boilers with electric ones. This essentially proved the value of McDevitt’s proposal. Electrical lines began to be strung and laid for increased service. Smoke density remained a problem for the city – in 1937, it was estimated that 97% of city homes still burned coal – this expressed itself every winter, leading to the pivotal days of November 1939. November 29th became known as “Black Tuesday”.
The streetlights and car headlamps burned all day, and visibility was nearly nil. Streetcars couldn’t keep to their schedules for lack of visibility. There were nine similar days in the next month. It directly led to Raymond Tucker being named Smoke Commissioner before the end of the year, and passage of the nation’s most restrictive smoke ordinance. 250 local coal dealers heckled from the gallery at City Hall as the ordinance was voted on. The source of winter coal was switched to Arkansas anthracite, or cleaner burning hard coal. As with the national trend, railroads switched to diesel power, homes and businesses converted to natural gas. St Louis enjoyed demonstrably cleaner air just a year later, and within five years smoke concentration was decreased by 75%.
For the record, Frank McDevitt who paved the city streets, and ground our garbage, and helped clean our air was called into service as World War II began. He led the Midwest District for Defense Contract Services to increase readiness as war impended, and then The Office of Production Management during the conflict. He died in 1957, at the age of 77. 40 years an engineer and 16 years a government servant, he stepped away from a lucrative career in electrical generation and distribution to make our city better. Mayor Raymond Tucker eulogized him as a great friend to the city, and his death a great loss to the mayor himself.
It also turned out, like in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, that under all the grime and smoke, and to the surprise of some, this is a pretty good looking place! John Albury Bryan knew this in 1934. I don’t know how he felt about grinding garbage, but he would definitely frown on grinding old buildings.
Thanks to research sources, including:
Missouri Skies Now And Then; MO DNR; https://dnr.mo.gov/env/apcp/missouriskiesnowandthen.htm
Smog Impacts Blog; Courtney Ouelette https://smogimpacts.weebly.com/1939-st-louis-smog.html
Look Back: The Day Coal Smoke Choked St Louis; Tim O’Neil St Louis Post Dispatch on STLToday, November 28 2017; https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/look-back-the-day-coal-smoke-choked-st-louis-/article_eeed6f7c-19ba-5962-97bc-39dc72fc6d28.html A terrific multi-media look at a strange time. Like our own version of the Dust Bowl.
Municipal Solid Waste -US EPA https://archive.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/web/html/
A valuable look at what goes into our solid waste, only 13% of which is currently recycled. We throw away a larger proportion of food (14.6%) than plastic (13%).
CQ Researcher library.cqpress.com – A function of Congressional Quarterly, with nice synopses of research topics. Through them I learned that the US government has only tracked garbage generation per capita since 1960. Then: 2.7 lbs/person. Today: 4.4 lbs/person.
Various St Louis Star And Times and Post Dispatch News Stories From 1934, 1935, 1939 and 1957.
1949-John Albury Bryan Reboots Lafayette Square; Mike Jones; 2018; https://lafayettesquare.org/1949-john-albury-bryan-reboots-lafayette-square/