Smoke pollution was a big problem during almost the entire first half of the Twentieth Century, but in the wintertime in Salt Lake City it was fierce. Everyone burned coal–soft, bituminous, and mined in Utah. People burned it in their homes, railroad steam engines chuffed through the valley, industries grew and brought coal-fired smelters and manufacturing plants, leaving a black pall to envelop the city.
Perhaps no single community issue occupied the Salt Lake Chamber’s attention for so long as what to do about smoke, and the Chamber wasn’t alone. Politicians, civic organizations, engineers, and scientists wrestled with the problem.
Every large city in the country had a smoke problem, but it was especially serious in Salt Lake City. In the wintertime, cold air flowed down from the snow-covered mountains surrounding the city on three sides, settling in the valley bottom and trapping moisture and industrial pollutants. The inversions were especially serious between the 1890s and the late 1940s, when the valley could be blanketed for half a year from October through March–except when strong winds blew the smoke elsewhere. That didn’t happen often.
Housewives had an endless job of scrubbing blackened walls, taking down their curtains for washing and ironing, being careful when to hang clothes out to dry so they wouldn’t collect soot.
By the mid-teens, one national magazine said Salt Lake had become a rival of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis as a smoke-plagued city. Salt Lake’s soot fall rate in the wintertime rivaled and often surpassed London.
The Chamber began its fight against smoke early, almost from its founding. In 1912, Charles W. Fifield, an oil company agent, was representing the Chamber (then called the Commercial Club) in the smoke abatement movement. In 1913, the Deseret News reported that the Chamber had “taken time by the forelock” and was preparing for a war on the evil of the smoke nuisance during the coming winter. In 1914, the Chamber’s public welfare committee, headed by George H. Dern, who would later be Utah’s governor, was urging Governor William Spry to conduct scientific studies of the cause of the pollution. “We went further, and argued that a pathologist employed by the County at the small salary specified would not prove adequate to meet the situation,” they reported to the Chamber’s board of governors. The board recommended to the city that they pay a larger salary to the chief inspector.
In 1920 George D. Keyser headed the Chamber’s Smokeless City Committee, and working with the Salt Lake Council of Women urged the city commission to adopt the recommendations of a report compiled by Osborn Monnett, a fuel engineer for the Bureau of Mines. The Chamber supported educational efforts to help coal-burners understand better technology, and to help businesses remodel their plants. The city in turn passed smoke-control ordinances, set up monitoring programs, and began seeking out violators. Smoke inspectors roamed the city or watched from atop the Walker Bank building by day, and at night searchlights played on smokestacks to catch violators. Smoke monitors compared the density of emissions against a grid colored in four shades of gray.
The Chamber even provided an airplane to help the city in its smoke inspection program during the winter. It made observation trips in the morning to help determine the origin and movement of smoke, and also helped spot violators.
The city’s anti-smoke campaign of the early ‘20s was “stunningly effective,” reported historian Walter E. Pittman, Jr., who said the support given by businessmen was particularly important.
But this kind of campaign is difficult to sustain, and the city would see more pollution and more anti-smoke crusades during the coming years. The Chamber would continue its strong involvement. In 1925, the Chamber appointed J. Cecil Alter, who was in charge of Salt Lake’s Weather Bureau and who had written reports on the effects of smoke pollution, as chairman of the Chamber’s Smokeless City Committee, signaling its interest in solving the problem.
Historian Thomas G. Alexander records an enlightening incident involving the Chamber. Sylvester Q. Cannon had been Salt Lake City engineer and worked on the smoke problems until his call as Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1925. In 1927 he succeeded Alter as chairman of the Chamber’s Smokeless City Committee. Seizing his opportunity, he rallied educators, Boy Scouts, railroads, and other interests into subcommittees to work on the city’s smoke problems. That same year, the Chamber induced the city commission to appropriate $18,000 ($185,500 in 2002 dollars) for more inspectors to look for pollution from private residences. Studies showed that as much as 75 percent of the smoke was now coming from homes, since businesses had upgraded their furnaces or put in new equipment and many of the smelters had closed or relocated.
Between 1927 and 1929 the city ran into problems enforcing its regulations against households, and so the commissioners cut the budget for smoke inspection. An irate Cannon responded to this by sending his resignation to the Chamber’s board of governors, citing the lack of cooperation from the city commission. “Apparently horrified at the prospect of the Presiding Bishop… resigning in protest, the board refused to accept the resignation, sending instead a representative to plead with the commission to increase the appropriation and enforce the smoke-abatement ordinance,” notes Alexander. The commission agreed to hire an extra inspector and the LDS General Authority stayed on as committee chairman.
But the smoke problem was to continue over the next decades. On March 2, 1936, a group of influential women helped organize the Salt Lake Women’s Chamber of Commerce with its major purpose to make Salt Lake City a smokeless city, “healthful, clear, prosperous and beautiful.” Enthusiasm for the organization, which was open to any “reputable” woman interested, was so great that its initial paid membership ($1 a year) hit two thousand quickly, and soon would be five thousand. Why they chose the name is not clear, because the organization was not an offshoot of the official Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club. Their leaders, and their husbands, represented some of the most civically active and prominent names in the state, noted a historian. The organization lobbied intensely for the next decade, and at times the Chamber’s officials met with them to coordinate their common goals.
Still, in 1941 the City Commission became worried about legislation being proposed by the woman’s organization and sent its city engineer, William L. Butler, along with Gus Backman, executive secretary of the Chamber and representing its smoke abatement committee, to St. Louis to look into how that city controlled its smoke problem. They came back and immediately introduced legislation for the city commission for a smoke abatement program modeled on St. Louis. That called for a gradual rather than complete elimination of emissions. The Women’s Chamber and other civic groups protested, but the city adopted new ordinances in 1941 and 1946 to regulate residential users.
Although the fight against smoke would continue for several more years, it wouldn’t be resolved until new technologies came into play. Huge reserves of natural gas were discovered in Wyoming in 1922 (to the chagrin of the drillers, who hoped for oil) and by 1928 plans were being made to pipe it 200 miles into Utah. When it got to Utah, it slowly began to replace coal. People found it too expensive to give up their coal furnaces for gas during the Great Depression, and during the war no new hookups could be made because steel needed for the gas pipes was also needed for the war.
But after the war, when a new customer sign-up day for natural gas was scheduled for March 18, 1950, “people camped out overnight on Social Hall Avenue in hope of getting one of the limited number of permits” wrote historian Miriam B. Murphy.
Coal was no longer king. That title belonged to the automobile, which would soon bring its own pollution problems to the valley. But the days of scrubbing wallpaper each spring were over.
Sources: Thomas G. Alexander, Utah the Right Place (Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs-Smith, 1995) 289-295. Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen, Mormons & Gentiles, (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Co., 1984) 180-182. Linda Sillitoe. A History of Salt Lake County, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah State Historical Society, 1996) 148-50. Walter E. Pittman, Jr., “The Smoke Abatement Campaign in Salt Lake City,” Locus 2 (Fall 1989). Miriam B. Murphy, “Smoke Nuisance,” Beehive History 9 (1983), 18. Ted Moore, “We’d Need A Compass To Cross Main Street, the Salt Lake Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Smoke Pollution,” (Master’s thesis at Utah State University, 1994). Chamber of Commerce Board of Governor’s minutes, 10 April 1914, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Deseret News, 11 September 1913.