Replay: Teddy Roosevelt and Washington DC’s “Smoke Nuisance”

Matthew Gilmore Discussion
Teddy Roosevelt and Washington DC’s “Smoke Nuisance”

repost--in light our smoky air situation--ED.

President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

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…..

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 titled “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.