The city of Indianapolis has earned a lot of dubious distinctions during its nearly 200-year history. In August 2014, Terminix ranked Indy as #14 on its list of bedbug-infested cities. In 2004, Men’s Health magazine called out Indianapolis as the 11th fattest city in the country. And in 2000, Indianapolis was crowned as the syphilis capital of the nation.
But Indianapolis may have reached her darkest hour in 1911, when a distinguished chemist announced with astonishment that the Circle City was far more dirty and dingy than New York city.
Speaking through swirls of cigar smoke at a “smoker” hosted by the American Chemical Society, Professor Charles Baskerville from the College of the City of New York exclaimed that he had always believed Indianapolis to be a “clean city” until he saw firsthand the thick black smoke pouring from downtown smokestacks.
“[W]hen I arrived here and found more smoke in proportion to the size of the city than there is in New York, I was convinced at once that there is something wrong,” Baskerville said. “Conditions here are a disgrace..”
Some 60 years before musician Frank Zappa warned his fans to “Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow,” Indianapolis residents faced a bigger threat from the gray snow that drifted down from the gray skies and piled up in the gray streets.
Or as Indianapolis author Booth Tarkington wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1918 novel, “The Magnificent Ambersons”:
Everything was damply streaked with the soot: the walls of the houses, inside and out, the gray curtains at the windows, the windows themselves, the dirty cement and unswept asphalt underfoot, the very sky overhead.
It was the Dark Ages of Indianapolis.
The city’s descent into the Dark Ages followed nearly two decades of decadent energy consumption during the Gas Boom era. Indiana was sitting atop the largest field of natural gas in the world, and supplies were plentiful and cheap. Homes that had formerly been warmed by wood-burning fireplaces and coal parlor stoves now boasted large central furnaces fueled by clean natural gas. New industries flocked to Indiana to take advantage of inexpensive fuel. In Indianapolis alone, nearly 200 miles of gas pipes were laid to fuel economic development and keep the home fires burning.
Indiana was proud to be the gassiest state in the nation. The Trenton gas field covered 2,500 square miles in east-central Indiana, and every time a new well was drilled or a new hole was bored, it was lit 24-hours, 7-days a week with a nonstop flame to show that the gas was flowing. These showy displays were called “flambeaux.”
Although the state Inspector of Natural Gas called the waste “criminal” and warned Hoosiers that “the day of repentance is fast approaching,” efforts to ban flambleux and other wasteful practices came too little and too late. By 1903, the wells were nearly dry.
At 8 a.m. on June 9, 1903, the Indianapolis Gas Company turned off the gas. The Dark Ages had begun.
As winter approached, Indianapolis residents began scrambling for ways to heat their homes. On October 4, 1903, The Indianapolis Star wrote:
During the gala days of natural gas, when everybody had plenty and no one thought of a time when it would cease to be, the home could be kept comfortable with any kind of heating apparatus …. It is, therefore, a new experience with many to have to order a winter’s supply of fuel and to shovel in coal instead of turning a convenient valve and having the fuel respond cheerily and cheerfully to the lighting of a match.
While undoubtedly cleaner and less arduous that actually working in a coal mine, living in a coal-heated house in the early 20th century was certainly no picnic. Coal dust coated furniture and dishes. Curtains, upholstery and even clothing became dingy and gray from the smoke and soot. And during the harsh Indiana winters, every new day dawned with a chilly trip to the cellar to shovel coal in the furnace.
When Indianapolis was first established in the 1820s, wood was the only readily available source of fuel to heat the settlers’ homes. The advent of the railroads in the 1850s opened up access to the state’s coal fields, but Hoosiers were slow to embrace coal, which cost about the same as wood but was much dirtier. But within a few years, the state would warm up to the idea of using coal as its old growth forests were depleted and the cost of wood rose to wartime highs. By the late 1880s, coal finally passed wood as the fuel of choice for Hoosiers’ homes.
Although Indiana’s reliance on coal dwindled during the Gas Boom era, it rose sharply during the first decade of the 20th century when the natural gas stopped flowing. Suddenly Indiana coal became the fuel of choice again. Indiana coal was used to heat homes, power factories, generate electricity and literally keep the trains running on time as they roared into Indianapolis, belching black smoke and hauling carload after carload of Indiana coal for the rapidly growing city.
Things in general looked pretty bright for Indianapolis. But the same couldn’t be said for the relentess gray soot that choked the skies, covered the windows, soiled the curtains and fouled the air.
In 1911, Mayor Lew Shank made smoke abatement one of his top priorities. Many of the city’s largest industries already had installed devices aimed at reducing smoke and increasing fuel efficiency. However, such technologies were neither available nor affordable for most of the city’s small businesses and homeowners. The problem was especially vexing for the women of Indianapolis, who struggled to keep their homes clean from coal residue and their families safe from the threat of pollution.
In September 1911, Mrs. Benjamin Harrison returned from a 16-month trip abroad and was shocked by the dirt she found in Indianapolis. She told The Indianapolis Star on October 2 that although the tenants who occupied her home during her travels had worked diligently to keep the house clean, she had been engaged in nonstop housecleaning since she arrived home, a task that promised to be a “continuous performance,” at least until “the halcyon dreams of the Smoke Abatement Society come true.”
The Smoke Abatement Association was established in 1911 as an offshoot of the Indianapolis Civic League and was aimed primarily at reducing coal smoke pollution from residences via an educational campaign. Every woman in the city was invited to join and was urged to improve the management of her own cooking and heating fires before pointing fingers at manufacturing plants.
As then-Civic League president Mrs. William L. Elder told The Indianapolis Star on September 30, 1911, some of the worst offenders were the women who lived in the “best residence section” along North Meridian, North Delaware and North Pennsylvania streets. “We make no attack on the poor people who burn soft coal,” she said. But as for the wealthy women who allowed dirty black smoke to pour from their homes, Elder warned that the group was not above writing letters to inform them that their neighbors are complaining.
In the years that followed, various smoke abatement ordinances were adopted and campaigns were launched with varying degrees of success. However, the biggest impact may have come from new technology, such as the automatic stoker, which increased fuel efficiency and reduced smoke. Stokers became widely available for residential use in the early 1920s, but by then, it was too late to save the area known today as The Old Northside historic district from the devastating effects of coal pollution. Many of the big Victorian houses already had been chopped up into apartments as their original owners moved north to cleaner air and greener pastures.