For a long time, fighting pollution seemed counterintuitive for most Buffalonians, despite sickness, bad smells and dirty laundry.
As a little boy in the 1970s and '80s, I vividly remember the trip between our South Buffalo home off Tifft Street and my dad’s tavern on Elk Street in the Valley.
Depending on our route that day, we’d drive by Republic Steel, Hanna Coke, Purina Mills, National Aniline, the Mobil Refinery and any number of other places.
Each plant and factory had a distinct smell and each emission had a unique look. Some belched thick black smoke that smelled like fire and burned my throat. Some shot fire out of the smokestack, and the translucent oil-slick-looking gas seared my eyes and nose on contact. Others were like rotten eggs. Some were a combination.
Just as vividly, I remember the rebuke of more than one adult telling me not to complain about the pollution that was making me sick because “smokestacks mean jobs.”
Of course, that was true. Those smokestacks drove Buffalo’s industry for generations. Billowing pollution fed the middle class and generated more wealth for the wealthy class.
But as early as the 1890s, there were people who were fighting the “blackening up” of “our fair city.”
“Clouds of smoke and soot smirching business blocks and homes,” read a headline in The Buffalo Evening News in 1898. “In spite of the ordinances prohibiting smoke nuisances, sky-scraping chimneys all over Buffalo continue to vomit forth clouds of dense, heavy black soot and smoke.”
The News reported it was a problem for every corner of Buffalo.
“No section of the city seems to be free from the intolerable nuisance. Main street merchants and those on the East and South sides complain that their goods are being ruined by the blackened clouds caused by the use of bituminous coal.
“The beautiful white stone buildings on Main and other business streets are gradually turning black from the smoke that descends on them day and night. Residences on Delaware Avenue suffer nearly as much as the little homes of workingmen only a few blocks from some big factory whose owner ignores the laws that are designed to rid Buffalo from the contamination of soot and smoke.”
The front page story named names of polluting businesses all over the city. John Noyes Manufacturing on Lake View Avenue, Manhattan Spirit Company on 4th Street, the Hotel Markeen at Main and Utica, the Beck Brewery at Jefferson and Best and the Globe Bicycle Works on Broadway were all mentioned.
The Jacob Dold Packing Co. and the Lautz Bros. plant were two huge factories, each taking up the entirety of a city block — Dold on Howard Street near Fillmore and Lautz on Hanover Street near the area now known as Canalside.
Dold and Lautz both proudly promoted their businesses with images of their factories belching black smoke out of smokestacks. It may have been dirty, but for more than a century, those filthy black clouds were a sign of vitality.
Still, the city’s single inspector tried to hold the line. Dold was warned to abate the soot coming from the 30 tons of coal it burned each day in its meatpacking business. An inspector said the nuisance from Lautz's soap factory was as bad as anywhere in the city.
Both companies were ordered into court and were among the 136 companies cited in the previous year.
The team fighting the “coal nuisance” was small, but they felt like there was progress being made, though it wasn’t until hard industry mostly left Buffalo that our buildings, laundry and lungs became mostly soot-free.
Story topics: From 1880 to Today