Cleaning Up the Air

Historic photos from Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City by Stefan Lorant

A bipartisan effort resulted in the enactment of smog control and the beginning of Pittsburgh's Renaissance.  However, the clean-up was delayed so long that Pittsburgh almost became a dying city.

After years of weak regulation, and halting enforcement, the City Council actually abolished the bureau of smoke regulation in 1939.

Three men acted to confront pollution with bold action.  Physician I. Hope Alexander led a public health crusade to reverse the false view that smoke was healthful by presenting factual information through the press.  Pittsburgh had high rates of respiratory illness and the nation’s highest rate of pneumonia.  Edward Leech, editor of the Pittsburgh Press, declared war on smoke by getting the facts before the public.  Abraham L. Wolk, used his position as city councilman to push politicians to reverse their opposition.  Two years later City Council passed an effective smoke control ordinance, but then Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the War Years delayed implementation.

According to former mayor, David L. Lawrence, “The rescue, as it happened, was a close thing”. 1  Pollution got so bad during the following war years, that US Steel, ALCOA, Westinghouse and other companies threatened to pull their headquarters from town because of the difficulty in recruiting office workers. 2

In 1946, a year after the War ended, Democrat David L. Lawrence, was elected mayor on a platform of cleaning up the air, controlling flooding, and rebuilding Pittsburgh.  During the war he had formed an alliance with Republican industrialist, Richard King Mellon.  The traditional rivals realized that Pittsburgh was on a path to decline if they could not overcome entrenched opposition.  They laid plans to act as soon as the war ended.  Unions feared the loss of jobs and industrialists opposed the costs of smoke regulations.  Together the two men forged bipartisan alliances based on a detailed plan of renewal.

Pittsburgh was powered by coal.  Many people made their living based on coal.  From mining, to heating, to fueling steam locomotives, coal was king.  Coal was used to make coke, an essential ingredient in the steel making process.  Mellon’s financial and industrial influence was essential in convincing the coal industry to supply cleaner coal and adopt new, less polluting technology, such as stokers.  Natural gas was piped to the region as a cleaner fuel for heating. 1

Many parts of the clean-up took time to implement.  Sandblasting years of soot off buildings rapidly improved the City’s appearance, giving the public confidence their leaders were serious about staying the course.
  1. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City by Stefan Lorant, Chapter 10.
  2. Explore PA History.

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