The "smoke nuisance"

ClawingThroughSmokeEveryone in 1893 Kansas City experienced the problem of dense, particle-laden smoke coming from hundreds of coal-burning furnaces and boilers in hotels, power plants, hotels, and private residences; everyone knew it had become increasingly troublesome as the city grew. The Times, which was on an anti-smoke crusade, described “great clouds of black smoke which pour from our large chimneys and fill the air with filth and dirt, injurious to the health and ruinous to buildings, to clothing and everything with which they come in contact […].”

Kansas City people were compelled, the paper said in another editorial, “to see, smell, eat and drink soot day after day, year after year.” A report from the “smoke committee” of the engineer’s association referred to the pall over the city which “envelops everything in its black and sulphurous folds.”

Everyone in the city had experienced the ill effects of the “smoke nuisance”: shade trees, their leaves coated in soot, dying; every room and corner in people’s homes coated with particles of soot; public buildings blackened; “constant expense for repainting, redecorating, extra cleaning and extra laundry work,” said the Times.

West Terrace LookoutThe city’s park system designed by George Kessler was just taking shape, but the Times predicted that the new parks would have to be named “Big Smoky,” “Little Smoky,” “The North Smoky,” and so on. The new Bluff Terrace park on the heights overlooking the West Bottoms, adjacent to Quality Hill where many of the city’s movers and shakers lived, was hardly visible from the Bottoms, and anyone taking a seat on one of the park benches “would be rewarded with a coat of soot.”

There was general understanding of the causes, foremost probably being careless shoveling of too much coal at once into a furnace orWithoutA smoke preventer boiler by an inattentive fireman, causing imperfect combustion. “When you see a great volume of smoke coming out of a chimney,” said a leading city engineer, “you may make up your mind that the fireman has waked up and is heaping in a mass of damp coal on a bed of incandescent coals, cooling off the fire and producing improper combustion […]. 

Chimneys were sometimes too small to provide adequate draft, or grate surfaces too small to supply steam without crowding fires. In addition, most of the coal used in Kansas City was soft, bituminous coal or crumbled “slack” coal that burned less cleanly than more expensive anthracite coal.

There was, however, not much agreement on what to do about the problem. Unlike almost every other city its size, Kansas City had no law restricting emissions; a previous law mandating the use of “smoke consumers” had been repealed years earlier, because the devices hadn’t worked. A city engineer called them “worthless contrivances.” The Times was now backing a new ordinance, proposed by Alderman Hunter, that called for reduction of smoke from businesses; private residences were exempted. Hunter’s ordinance did not specify any particular method of abatement, which encouraged multiple BurdenSmokeConsumerviewpoints on what could be done.

One opinion, printed in the pro-business Journal, was that trying to abate the smoke nuisance was a will o’ the wisp: “It is true that the smoke can be stopped, in a large degree, in the large chimneys, but there are thousands of small ones belching forth their volumes from soft coal all over the city.” In addition, the editors added, the middle of an economic depression was no time to compel businessmen to spend money on smoke consuming devices that don’t work: “If the nuisance could be abated in a satisfactory manner, there could be no objection to its abatement at once, but since the whole thing is an experiment, the city fathers should go a little slow in ordering heavy outlay of money by the citizens.”

In another article in the Journal, about a meeting of the city’s Engineer’s Club, one member thought that the only solution was to switch to some other type of fuel, although fuel oil was a third more expensive than coal. At the same meeting, a leading city engineer, Robert Gilham, agreed with the Journal that smoke reduction was still experimental. “There are,” said Gilham, “no devices of aHall stoker mechanical nature that consume smoke.” The only method shown to work was the mechanical stoker that gradually coked the fuel and directed smoke back over the fire grate. Mechanical stokers “are not smoke consumers” as such, said Gilham, but do reduce the smoke nuisance. Nevertheless, with the failure of the previous ordinance in mind, Gilham was against the city requiring the use of any particular furnace design.

The Times was undeterred, pointing to ordinances in other cities: “Kansas City is behind every other city in the United States in the suppression of the smoke nuisance,” the editors complained. “Ordinances against the smoke nuisance are being rigidly enforced in St. Louis, where soft coal is consumed to a greater extent than in Kansas City. The same is true of Chicago, Omaha, St. Paul, Minneapolis, in fact of every metropolitan city except Kansas City,” where the city government seemed to take no active interest in the problem.

Nevertheless, there was resistance to any effort at smoke prevention, from those who believed pollution couldn’t be prevented and from those in the business community who, like the Journal’s editors, thought that an economic depression was no time to impose such expenses on manufacturers. The Times denied both positions: smoke prevention, it argued, had worked in other cities, and in Kansas City itself there were boilers “under which the fires are never dead,” such as at the New York Life building, which omitted no visible pollutants, yet used ordinary quality coal and gave engineers and firemen no special training. Its furnaces had basic devices for feeding in coal and ensuring efficient combustion.  The building manager claimed a 15 percent saving in fuel costs.

Armour packing companyThe Times continued to push for the passage of Hunter’s ordinance, citing the examples of prominent citizens who favored it, including, ironically, Kirk B. Armour, head of the Armour Packing Company, one of the city’s foremost polluters. Armour was one of a group of city luminaries who signed a letter addressed to managers of various power houses, hotels and other smoke-producing enterprises, politely asking “whether it is possible for you to abate the smoke which comes in such volumes from your building.” 

Armour lived at 1017 Penn Street, now Pennsylvania Avenue, in the Quality Hill district overlooking the packing plants in the West Bottoms. “I haven’t talked about it a great deal,” Armour told the Times, “for I felt that so long as we were making so much smoke at Kansas City, Kan., it would be unseemly to complain of others. Now, however, we have arranged to put in smoke consumers at our plant and I feel free to express my opinion. When a westerly wind blows [i.e. a wind that would carry smoke and smell from the packing plants and stockyards], this part of the city is almost uninhabitable. The dirt is beyond description and no such thing as comfort is possible.” His plant was installing two devices: one of the dubious “smoke-consumers.” and a locally-designed self-feeding furnace that had revolving instead of inclined and shaking grates.

Everyone, “Capitalist and mechanic, lawyer and laborer,” said the Times, wanted the Hunter ordinance passed. The paper introduced the opinions of a Pennsylvania specialist in pulmonary diseases – most of the arguments against the “smoke nuisance” to date had been about expense and unsightliness – who argued that public health should be the first consideration: “Every consideration of health and cleanliness demands the abatement of the smoke nuisance, and cost should not be taken into account.”

Whatever the engineers’ and doctors’ opinions, the matter of forcing manufacturers and businessmen to take on the expense of changing their ways remained controversial. One businessman told the Times  he was a “friend of manufacturers and would not be willing to coerce them into any plan which would result in unnecessary or unreasonable expense […].”  City Councilman Foley opposed the Hunter ordinance because he thought it discriminated against the small manufacturers “who are having a hard time just now to get along and make a living.” The city should encourage such businesses to locate in Kansas City: “We have not too many smokestacks here now, and if we had some more it would be better for the city.” Further, insisted Councilman Foley on the health question, “I don’t believe that smoke hurts us at all. There have been scores of owners of large buildings in the city who came to see me about the ordinance and asked me to work against it if it came to the lower house. They all protested against the crusade of the Times against the so-called smoke nuisance.”

It doesn’t appear that Hunter’s proposed ordinance passed in city council, or if it did, was effective in reducing smoke pollution, since ten years later members of the Real Estate Exchange were still musing over the need for regulation of the “smoke nuisance.”  [Whitney, Carrie Westlake. Kansas City, Missouri; its history and its people 1808-1908. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1908, p. 268]

April 5, 2015