Stop the Pollution! (9-2-1919)

Chicago was booming.  Factories were operating at full speed.  But now there was concern about the by-products of industrial prosperity.

The Steiner-Lee Dye Works was located at 823 East 39th Street (Pershing Road).  The plant had been operating for over ten years.  Soot and smoke had always been a problem.  Now it was getting worse.  The yellow street signs in the neighborhood had even started to turn brown.

Stop the pollution!

Stop the pollution!

Area residents were getting fed up.  The pollution wasn’t much of an issue in the winter, when everybody had their windows closed.  But this was the era before air conditioning, and on hot summer nights, people would sleep with the windows open.

Or try to.  Sleep was nearly impossible with those disagreeable factory odors wafting into the bedroom.  During August alone, nine people filed formal complaints with the city’s Health Commissioner, Dr. John Dill Robertson.  He had issued a warning to Steiner-Lee.  But the black smoke continued to pour out of the chimneys.

Today, Robertson decided to take direct action.  Two inspectors were sent to the factory, and the boilers were put out.  A police guard was left on duty.

Dr. John Dill Robertson

Dr. John Dill Robertson

Mr. Steiner, head of the dye works, claimed the whole thing was a misunderstanding.  “I think I can convince the Health Commissioner that I have not been an intentional violator,” he said.  “I hired a young man just out of the army, who did not know much about boilers, and I did not like to discharge him under the circumstances.”

In discussing the case, Commissioner Robertson noted that this was the first time a city factory had been closed because it was a smoke nuisance.  Clean air was vital for the health of Chicagoans.  He would continue his vigilance.  He vowed that he would shut down other businesses that refused to obey his warnings.

The Steiner-Lee Dye Works eventually reopened.  City clean air laws were tightened.  Today pollution is much less of a problem in Chicago.

John Dill Robertson later resigned as Health Commissioner, and became president of the Chicago Board of Education.  In 1927 he ran for mayor of Chicago as a candidate of the People’s Ownership-Smash the Crime Rings Party.  He received 5 percent of the vote.



2 Responses to “Stop the Pollution! (9-2-1919)”

  1. 1 Garry September 2, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    A few years later they forced the IC RR to get rid of the steam engines & switch to electricity for its commuter trains.
    It’s a shame they didn’t do that to all the railroads!
    The C&NW looked at doing it, but they claimed the cost was too high as they were always in financial trouble.

  2. 2 Ralph September 4, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    To bad as well for the electric CTA Buses.

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