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Teddy Roosevelt and Washington DC’s “Smoke Nuisance”

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

In of December 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt’s annual message to Congress contained a passage which would seem rather extraordinary to us today. In that day, the President sent his annual message to Congress in writing. (There was no State of the Union speech until President Wilson revived the custom in 1913.)

Delivering the speech in writing allowed the President to go on limitlessly — no impatient audience, no applause lines. Roosevelt took advantage of this — his fifth, was over 25,000 words. The provocative passage dealt with a very specific District of Columbia issue — the smoke nuisance law:

“The law forbidding the emission of dense black or gray smoke in the city of Washington has been sustained by the courts. Something has been accomplished under it, but much remains to be done if we would preserve the capital city from defacement by the smoke nuisance. Repeated prosecutions under the law have not had the desired effect. I recommend that it be made more stringent by increasing both the minimum and maximum fine; by providing for imprisonment in cases of repeated violation, and by affording the remedy of injunction against the continuation of the operation of plants which are persistent offenders. I recommend, also, an increase in the number of inspectors, whose duty it shall be to detect violations of the act.” [1]

The section appears well into the address. Roosevelt began the address with a discussion of corporations and interstate commerce:

“I do not believe in the Government interfering with private business more than is necessary. I do not believe in the Government undertaking any work which can with propriety be left in private hands. But neither do I believe in the Government flinching from overseeing any work when it becomes evident that abuses are sure to obtain therein unless there is governmental supervision.”

Roosevelt did touch on wider issues in the District of Columbia further on:

“The National Government has control of the District of Columbia, however, and it should see to it that the City of Washington is made a model city in all respects, both as regards parks, public playgrounds, proper regulation of the system of housing, so as to do away with the evils of alley tenements, a proper system of education, a proper system of dealing with truancy and juvenile offenders, a proper handling of the charitable work of the District. Moreover, there should be proper factory laws to prevent all abuses in the employment of women and children in the District.” [2]

He used this as a transition to a long passage on labor laws and employment of children and women. He moved on to insurance regulation, election finance transparency, [3] the Hague conference, the Russo-Japanese war, an effective military to provide “security for a just peace,” enlarging the navy, immigrant naturalization, irrigation, the Jamestown Tercentennial. Then a return to discussing immigration, [4] civil service, copyright, law to “regulate inter-State commerce in misbranded and adulterated foods, drinks, and drugs.” Next pops up the smoke issue in Washington. Then Yosemite, pensions, Indians, Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Alaska, and the other territories, the Panama Canal, and communication within the diplomatic corps.

His reference to Washington social and political issues wasn’t unprecedented—the passage about slum dwellings and employment is much like that in his second annual message three years earlier, in 1902. [5] In 1903 he urged the adoption of the recommendations of the commission charged with the investigation of the charities and reformatory institutions of the District. [6] In 1904 he called for a special “Commission on Housing and Health Conditions in the National Capital” to combat alley dwellings and prevent development of tenements. He touched on the lack of a compulsory school attendance law and called for the development of more playgrounds (to be funded by savings in “stopping the building of streets and leveling of ground for purposes largely speculative in outlying parts of the city”!). [7]

The examples demonstrate Roosevelt’s interest in the nation’s capital. He’d had a rocky career in New York City municipal government, serving as President of the board of police commissioners from 1895 to 1897.

The Evening Star was distinctly unimpressed with the President’s message about the smoke law in 1905, headlining their editorial “Enforcing Bad Laws”:

“. . . [T]he President thinks that the District smoke law is moribund and in need of enforcement, perhaps to the end of securing its amendment. His recommendations for much more severe penalties, if adopted by Congress, would certainly galvanize the statute into a most amazing life, but Its active application would cause the death of all local business.”

The present law is far from dead. It is not even dying. It is in good health, indeed, so far as Its application Is concerned.” [8]

Section of a series of circa 1908 panoramic images, this one totled “Washington from the Monument.” Seen at center bottom at 14th and B Sts. (now Constitution Ave.) is the PEPCO power plant which was a persistent smoke offender. Surrounding the power plant are elements of industrial Washington, including a furniture factory, several mills, iron works. Seen in the center upper right on Pennsylvania Ave. are the main Post Office and the Raleigh Hotel. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Washington’s “smoke nuisance” was surely minor compared to the great industrial cities of Pennsylvania and the Midwest, but it was visible right out the White House windows. Roosevelt had, in fact, been struggling with the District commissioners over the smoke nuisance since he became President.

Smoke pouring from B St. power plant smokestack. This 1901 view is looking west from square 490, the block between Louisiana Ave. (now Indiana Ave.), Pennsylvania Ave., 4½ St. (now John Marshall Place), and 6th St. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

But Roosevelt was not the first President to take an interest in the subject. Almost 25 years before, in 1882, President Chester A. Arthur sent the Senate “. . . [A] report from the Secretary of State and its accompanying papers, concerning the Smoke Abatement Exhibition which was held at South Kensington, London, last winter.”

The exhibition, called the “International Exhibition of Smoke Preventing Appliances,” was a kind of trade show “for the purpose of testing scientifically the present appliances for the production of a more perfect combustion and the abatement of the smoke nuisance.” [9] The term of art for those appliances would come to be “smoke consumers,” and a technological solution to smoke emissions was long promised and sought after.

Detail from “Birdseye view of the National Capital, including the site of the proposed World’s Exposition of 1892 and Permanent Exposition of the Three Americas.” image (ca. 1888) –Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Origins of the Smoke Law

By the late 1880s smoke had become a feature of the Washington skyline. The 1888 engraving promoting Washington as the location for the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition included discreet puffs of smoke from a variety of smokestack across downtown, the Pension Building, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. In 1893 Representative John Dalzell of Pennsylvania introduced the first bill to abate the “smoke nuisance” in Washington, citing the pollution of the air of Georgetown by burning of refuse in the dumps along the banks of Rock Creek.

“Abate the smoke menace” from Oct. 23, 1893 Washington Post.


The earliest mention of “smoke nuisance” in American newspapers seems to have been in a brief story on Manchester, England that appeared the January 18, 1843 edition of Philadelphia’s North American and Daily Advertiser.

Ten years later, on September 22, 1853, the National Intelligencer reported on Lee Stevens receiving a patent for a smokeless furnace, a technological solution to smoke. A few months later, on December 17th, 1853 Philadelphia’s North American and United States Gazette (now published under a altered name) looked to the application of a technology to make possible the abolition of the “constantly increasing evil” smoke nuisance in Pittsburg. The Daily Cleveland Herald, on September 30, 1870, reported on an anti-smoke ordinance in New York City.

On December 21, 1895 the Washington Morning Times included coverage of a letter to the Commissioners (from someone they do not name). The writer offers the suggestion that coke be used rather that bituminous (soft) coal which produced the smoke disfiguring Washington’s public buildings:

“Washington is an ideal city in good order, good streets, admirable parks, and freedom from the trolley and other wires. <> It only remains to get rid of coal smoke.”

Six months earlier, on June 15, 1895, the Commissioners had appointed a smoke committee consisting of Capt. Edward Burr, Assistant Engineer Commissioner; William Woodward, Health Officer; John N. Brady, Building Inspector; and Lt. Col. Dr. John Shaw Billings.

On January 29, 1896 the Evening Star editorialized against “The Smoke Nuisance”:

“While it Is probably true that Washington will never become so deplorably a victim to smoke as Pittsburg, yet a sufficient reason for action [sic] exist today to justify the Commissioners in taking official cognizance of the matter and checking the development of the nuisance.”

The committee issued its report on January 16, 1897, and on the 23rd the Washington Post reported that the Commissioners planned to send Congress a bill on smoke abatement which would declare emission of smoke a public nuisance and impose fines for violation.

“Declares Smoke a Nuisance” from Jan. 23, 1897 Washington Post.

In 1898 a smoke law for the District was finally under consideration in Congress. As reported in the Congressional Record of June 27th, Iowa Congressman Curtis noted during floor debate that the bill was “almost an exact copy of the ordinance in force in the cities of Minneapolis, Minn., and Indianapolis, Ind.”

In the Congressional committee’s report on the bill credit was given to the District Commissioners: “The draft of this bill was submitted by, and early enactment into law urged by, the Commissioners of the District of Columbia.” [10] This attempt, HOWEVER, was not successful.

Notwithstanding that setback, the next year there was success. In 1899 Congress passed the Smoke Act on February 2nd, titled “An Act for the prevention of smoke in the District of Columbia, and for other purposes.”

The Act prohibited the “emission of dense or thick black smoke or cinders from any smokestack or chimney…” A six-month grace period was given to allow for any technological solution. And on May 31st the Evening Times reported in its story headlined “Smoke-Consumer Men Invade the Capital; Health Department Ready to Enforce the New Law,” that “[s]ince the law was passed, the District Building has been overrun with inventors and sellers of these consumers. The majority of them arc cranks, but there are enough reliable affairs to warrant a trial of the devices.”

The Milwaukee Sentinel of July 12, 1899, in its report headlined “Smoke Prevention,” touted the success of Washington’s new law and use of smoke preventing and consuming devices. In their 1899 annual report, the District Commissioners described the difficulties in enforcing the law, which was now being tested in the courts.

In the Washington Times of August 8, 1900, DC’s Health Commissioner Woodward reported progress in the fight against smoke — a year after the six-month grace period ended. Numerous businesses were reported to have installed smoke consumers or planned to do so.

A month later, on September 18th, the District responded to Washington Traction and Electric’s George Harries informing that DC could not recommend any particular smoke consumer product or solution.

In 1903 members of Congressional District committees were given a demonstration of a locally designed smoke consumer as a kind of testimony, since they were considering amendments to the smoke law.

Roosevelt vs. Smoke

Roosevelt had, in fact, a track record of haranguing the District’s Board of Commissioners about the “smoke nuisance,” writing to them twice in early 1902 — on January 21st and February 19th. Apparently, Roosevelt not received any response to his original letter to the Commissioners back in October of 1901. [11]

Jan. 21, 1902 letter from President Theodore Roosevelt to District of Columbia’s Board of Commissioners about the “smoke nuisance.” image–Library of Congress, Manuscript Div. / Theodore Roosevelt Papers.

In concluding his January 21st letter, Roosevelt wrote, “Please report in writing at your earliest convenience what steps you are taking to abate these nuisances.” By February his exasperation was clear, and in his letter of the 19th, complained that “the smoke nuisance does not show one symptom of betterment,” and demanded, “I desire a detailed statement of what has been done by you since my last letter. . . .”

Feb. 19, 1902 follow-up letter from President Theodore Roosevelt to District of Columbia’s Board of Commissioners about the “smoke nuisance.” image–Library of Congress, Manuscript Div. / Theodore Roosevelt Papers.


By March 8, 1902 the Board of Trade was proposing a new anti-smoke law. [12] Two years later the shoe was on the other foot. Roosevelt wrote to each cabinet secretary May 18, 1904, directing them to investigate and stop any transgressions of the smoke law. The 1904 report of the smoke inspector reveals the cause:

“The emission of large amounts of dense black smoke from the stack connected with one of the buildings used by the Interior Department, continued after repeated admonitions from this office, led to the prosecution of the custodian of the offending building. The police court, however, on February 6, 1904, held the defendant not guilty. No appeal was taken, and smoke continued to be discharged in as great volumes as before.” [13]

May 18, 1904 letter from Theodore Roosevelt to the Commissioners of the District of Columbia. image–Library of Congress, Manuscript Div. / Theodore Roosevelt Papers.


Roosevelt publicized his District smoke nuisance efforts and on December 25th, whereupon District Commissioner Henry L. West wrote a cringing and self-defensive letter to Roosevelt pointing out his own efforts to try to enforce the smoke law and his frustration (and the fact that it wasn’t even his actual responsibility according to the division of responsibilities among the three Commissioners).

1904 letter from Henry Litchfield West to Theodore Roosevelt. image–Library of Congress, Manuscript Div. / Theodore Roosevelt Papers.


A few days later, on the 29th, the Evening Star reported on the results of the smoke law dustup:

“The District Commissioners, it is understood, are agreed that the present law should be enforced without fear or favor and without any show of partiality. It Is also understood they are agreed that only by stringent enforcement of the existing law can good results be accomplished.”

Excerpt from Dec. 29, 1904 Evening Star article headlined “Law to be Enforced.”

Even while Roosevelt was battling with the Commissioners, normal inspection operations had proceeded. In his 1903 report, the Smoke Inspector R.L. Lynch reported that the coal strike had made enforcement of the smoke law impossible, stating that “. . . during the greater part of the period during which the strike continued Washington, in common with practically all other cities in the country, was a smoky city.” [14]

He further reported 14,310 violations, up from 596 the previous year. He also noted improvement at the Potomac Electric Light and Power Company plant at 14th and B Streets (now Constitution Avenue), NW — the plant Roosevelt had complained about, in 1902. The operator had even been hauled into court and fined, a judgment upheld on appeal. [15]

Inspector Lynch’s 1904 report was much more eventful. He reported that the Supreme Court had denied an appeal to strike down the law, and noted that the failed prosecution of Department of Interior staff for violation of the law. A letter of May 17, 1904 from by Commissioner Macfarland to the President prompted Roosevelt to issue his edict to his cabinet to bring federal agencies into compliance with the law; violations that year fell to 651.

Most importantly, an effort was made to amend the smoke law to permit the emission of dense or thick black or gray smoke or cinders “for periods of time not exceeding three minutes.” The Commissioners were consulted, and they recommended against the change in the law.

Would technology save the day? At the end of 1904, the Washington Times had run a story “About smoke law furnace men say red hot things,” countered the next day with “By Some Devices Smoke Nuisance Is Eradicable.” Smoke consumers, as they were called, which promised a solution nearly a decade earlier were again touted as able to prevent smoke emission — that and the use of hard (anthracite) coal, rather than soft (bituminous) coal. Hard coal burned much cleaner. [16]

A formal answer to the President was finally forthcoming in January of 1905. On the 12th the Evening Star (and the other papers) published a letter (released by the White House) from the Commissioners to the President. It detailed the efforts of the District government to enforce the law through inspections and fines. They recognized the flagrant violations by the PEPCO plant, noting it had been prosecuted 66 times and paid fines of $700. [17]

Soon after, the Government Printing Office director, the Public Printer, was charged and fined for violating the law. The court would hold the federal government to the same standard as commercial Washington.

In Congressional hearings the Commissioners listed the chronic offenders:

American Ice Company, Chapin Apartment House, General Land Office, Godey’s Lime Kilns, W.B. Moses & Sons, Potomac Electric Power Company, Purity Ice Company, Woodward and Lothrop, Auth Provision Company, Columbia limekilns, Georgetown Gaslight Company, Government Printing Office, Post-Office, Potomac Electric Power Company, Tolman Laundry, Washington Railway & Electric Company. [18]

As the Congressional term ended, action on Capitol Hill took place to try to forge a more equitably enforceable law. Proposals had been floated to allow an experimental loosening of emission restrictions. These would allow two minutes of smoke emission, twice an hour, limited to 20 minutes per day. But somehow things fell apart. The business community, represented by PEPCO’s General Manager George H. Harries, urged the President to sign the smoke law amendment bill which had made it through Congress.

The District Commissioners stood off from all these final efforts, denying that they even knew what was in the bill Congress had passed. They may not have known the final provisions but would have been quite negligent to have been ignorant of the bill entirely. Roosevelt was clearly conflicted about it, pocket-vetoing with the rationale that it came to him at the last minute and he had no time to examine it – it was his inauguration day.

And as the year concluded, Roosevelt made his call for more enforcement and additional legislation to combat the “smoke nuisance” in his annual message to Congress. The Evening Star on December 7th took issue with the President’s proposal as impossible to enforce and crippling to industry. The Health Officer had administratively amended enforcement of the law to make it functional, but this had led to charges of arbitrariness and inequitable treatment. The Star agreed the law should be amended, but in a way to make it fairly, consistently enforceable.

Roosevelt’s December 1905 message was (unbeknownst at the time) a kind of Parthian shot; the smoke law issue slowly faded. In 1906 the Washington Post was reporting “Little Smoke in City.” [19] Legislation was proposed and failed to exempt the District south of the Anacostia from the law. The Health Officer’s smoke inspector continued to inspect and fine violators. The issue did flare up in 1907 with the opening of the new Union Station. Smoke from coal burning locomotives was defacing the new station and nearby federal buildings. District officials pressed for locomotive electrification — but that was a struggle which would take nearly three decades, and not until 1935 with electrification of Pennsylvania Railroad to Washington.

Legislation to apply the smoke law to the railroads in Washington failed in the Senate. In 1908 the Citizens Association of Georgetown unsuccessfully agitated to have Georgetown exempted from the law. The American Ice Company at 16th and E Streets, NE closed in September of 1908, citing unfair enforcement of the law. [20]

In 1911 the Commissioners ordered the police department to cooperate in enforcement of the law. At that point over 400 locations were under observation. [21] By 1911 newspaper coverage of the enforcement (or lack of) the smoke law tapered off.

New legislation would not be passed until 1935, perhaps nudged along after the Architect of the Capitol was charged with violating the law in 1930, much as had the Public Printer (GPO) decades earlier) [22].


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References and Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.