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Cloudy with a chance of soot: Milwaukee's skies were tarnished for years by its coal-fired furnaces

Cloudy with a chance of soot: Milwaukee's skies were tarnished for years by its coal-fired furnaces

“Bluebird days,” the skiers and snowboarders call them. The term refers to winter days when the sky is as clear as crystal, the wind barely a whisper, and new snow gives the landscape a radiance it has at no other time of the year. When you look out your window on a winter morning at a world flooded with light, you’re witnessing a bluebird day.

Those days have been relatively rare so far this winter. We’ve had spells of achingly bright and often bracingly cold weather, but the sky’s dominant mood has been overcast, with a serious shortage of snow. While northern Wisconsin luxuriates in a mantle of white, the ground here in the south has more often been frozen and bare — good for skating, decent for biking, lousy for cross-country skiing.

Despite that, we’ve been lucky, at least in comparison with our urban ancestors. They rarely saw a bluebird day; their skies, in fact, were more often the color of crows, and the culprit was coal. From the 1880s into the 1950s, coal was America’s leading energy source by a wide margin, fueling railroad locomotives, industrial machinery, electric plants, gas works, home furnaces, and just about everything else that didn’t rely on horses for its motive power.

The result was a pollution problem of scandalous proportions. I was reminded of our soot-choked past in a recent reading of Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons,” a 1918 novel set in what is probably the author’s native Indianapolis. I read the book as part of my nearly completed odyssey through the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, an exercise I recommend as infinitely more broadening than reliance on the best-seller lists of our own moment in time.

Tarkington, whose book won the Pulitzer Prize, painted a decidedly bleak portrait of a typical Midwestern city pursuing prosperity in the late 1800s:

"What they meant by Prosperity was credit at the bank; but in exchange for this credit they got nothing that was not dirty, and, therefore, to a sane mind, valueless; since whatever was cleaned was dirty again before the cleaning was half done. For, as the town grew, it grew dirty, with an incredible completeness. The idealists put up magnificent business buildings and boasted of them, but the buildings were begrimed before they were finished. They boasted of their libraries, of their monuments and statues; and poured soot on them. ... They drew patriotic, optimistic breaths of the flying powdered filth of the streets, and took the foul and heavy smoke with gusto into the profundities of their lungs.”

Milwaukeeans spent their days wrapped in the same carboniferous cloud. The city had earned its first prosperity as an exporter of wheat — the world’s largest for a time — but by 1880 it was importing even greater quantities of coal. Receipts of the fossil fuel soared from 92,992 tons in 1868 to 350,840 in 1879 and 759,681 in 1886. Milwaukee passed the million-ton mark just two years later, and shipments kept climbing to more than five million tons in 1910.

Coal-producing regions in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and as close as central Illinois saw their populations grow and their landscapes materially diminished as mining activity accelerated. In one of his best-known songs, John Prine laments that he’ll never get to experience Paradise Valley, his father’s home region in Kentucky. “Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away,” goes the refrain, and one of the places Paradise Valley ended up was Milwaukee.

Cloudy with a chance of soot: Milwaukee's skies were tarnished for years by its coal-fired furnaces

Coal’s impact on the city’s quality of life was progressively calamitous. By the late 1800s, most residents had grown accustomed to a permanent pall of smoke over their neighborhoods. Black windowsills were common, white sheets a rarity, and on the worst days the sun was barely visible through the prevailing gloom even at high noon. On Mondays, America’s traditional wash day, anyone who lived downwind from the Menomonee Valley factory district didn’t bother to hang out their clothes until the wind had shifted. In the dog days of summer, workers in the Valley and elsewhere spent their waking hours in a noxious slurry of soot and sweat. Anyone with pulmonary problems —asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis — was especially vulnerable. There are multiple reasons that America’s average life expectancy was only 47 years in 1900, but pervasive coal smoke was a potent contributor.

There were periodic complaints about the “smoke nuisance,” and they seemed to peak during the summer months, when people spent more time outdoors. In 1889, a correspondent for the Milwaukee Sentinel blasted the city’s “intolerable, nasty, dirty, ill-smelling, foul atmosphere.” Practically quoting Booth Tarkington, he continued, “Life in Milwaukee in the month of July is a constant reminder that dirt we are and unto dirt we must return, and we are getting there fast.”

And yet the ubiquitous soot had its defenders. To many in the business community, smokestacks meant prosperity, just as Tarkington lamented in “The Magnificent Ambersons.” In 1873, a visiting reporter from Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a New York periodical, singled out the Bay View iron mills, an especially prolific polluter, for special praise: “The smoke from their chimneys rises across the beautiful harbor, so that travelers have said that it has the picturesque effect of Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples.”

I’ve had a passing acquaintance with coal over the years. On spring camping trips to Indiana and Kentucky, my kids would find chunks of coal on roadsides or even in streambeds and then put them close enough to the evening campfire to ignite. A rock that burned! The kids were suitably amazed, but they learned to stay upwind of the acrid black smoke.

The same sour smell lingered in the air over my first neighborhood on Milwaukee’s South Side, and I can recall playing on the concrete ashbox across the alley from our little house. But I was raised during coal’s last days as a residential fuel. By the 1950s, the world had moved to other energy sources that were less obviously polluting: diesel fuel for locomotives, gasoline for cars and trucks, fuel oil for home heating. The first natural gas pipeline from the Southwest reached Wisconsin in 1949, and gas was soon the region’s fuel of choice, particularly for residential customers. Coal gradually became the ugly stepchild of energy sources, its use limited largely to power plants, and even there its role has steadily diminished.

Although Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963 and strengthened it in 1970, coal’s fall from grace was not the result of government intervention. Other forms of energy were simply cheaper, more efficient, and more convenient to use. In time, they, too, have yielded ground to solar, wind, and other renewable sources.

There are lingering reminders of coal’s heyday in Milwaukee. Decades after they were last used, coal chutes still adorn thousands of older Milwaukee homes, and there are probably still a few unconverted coal bins in the city’s basements. Perhaps the fuel’s most visible legacy is the Cream City brick that was once Milwaukee’s signature building material. Its pale yellow tones brightened hundreds of city blocks, but the brick is as porous as it is attractive. After marinating in airborne soot for half a century, it was soiled beyond recognition, and only expensive restoration efforts can take it from dingy gray back to its original glow.

Although it may not always be apparent, our air and our water are both significantly cleaner than they were a century ago. King Coal’s sooty reign is nearly over, thank goodness, and, year by year, the bluebird days have returned to grace our skies.

John Gurda writes a column on local history for the Ideas Lab on the first Sunday of every month. Email: mail@johngurda.com