Smog, a combination of coal-fed smoke and fog, creates a London-like scene in the city in 1942. The City-County building is in the distance.
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.