Chester Martin Remembers Pollution In The City

Monday, May 23, 2016
1976 Chester Martin painting "Leaf Burning"
1976 Chester Martin painting "Leaf Burning"

Ever since Man found out how to cook there has been atmospheric pollution by the human race. Chattanooga used to be much more polluted than it is today. In fact, Chattanooga is immaculately clean now compared to a few decades ago. Even so, I never really thought of our town as being  "dirty".

Back in the 1960's and well into the '70's you could drive into town through the Bachman Tubes (East Ridge tunnels), the Ridge Cut, or the Brainerd Road tunnels and encounter a layer of pollution over the downtown that appeared thick enough to walk on or drive your car across.

This was not every day, of course, but when the temperature and humidity were just right we had this stuff called "smog". Laws, and public support for a massive clean-up, soon corrected that problem, however, and Chattanooga is much the better for it. But to do it, a number of old smokestack industries had to close down.

It is a fact that pollution has been with us for millennia, as lightning-caused forest fires and volcanic activity undoubtedly gave us much of it long before Man appeared on earth. When the first humans arrived, and had discovered how to make fire, the gentle flames from thousands of  earthen hearths caused continuous pollution. When the first white settlers arrived in these parts, they also made their contributions of smoke - to help create the haze surrounding our beautiful and much-loved  "Great Smoky Mountains".

But I do not mean to glorify it. The thick "smokestack" pollution described above is harmful in many ways and there is no wonder we have worked so hard for its virtual eradication.

However,all my young life - until about 1970 - one of the most delightful parts of Autumn had been to rake our yards and then burn the leaves. This was a much-anticipated family activity and could result in a lot of fun for all ages. The seldom unpleasant odor of burning leaves pervaded the atmosphere throughout the city. I only rarely heard of a smoke-created sinus problem, and most people tolerated the odor very well. It was a very welcome harbinger of Autumn, which was a sign of all the good things to come: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. It was a delightful seasonal odor.

But in earlier times, Chattanooga had had several giant chimneys spewing their toxic waste 24 hours a day. We were known for being a city of foundries - an industry which could never close down, as cooling and re-starting could severely damage the furnaces. There were two or three larger foundries, and a whole host of other smaller ones. There were also industries such as the large tannery whose huge hulk of a building still remains on the west side of Broad Street toward St. Elmo. THERE was some serious "odor pollution", folks,  when you passed that entire area on an ancient street-car on a sultry summer's night with windows wide open! You could smell it for a mile before reaching it, and then for at least another mile after you passed it. The foul odor even clung to your clothing and went home with you! That tannery was one of Chattanooga's first important manufacturing industries, and vital to the life of the city, but not a soul was sorry to see it go - including the owners, I would wager!

I remember how in either fifth or sixth grade a boy in my class wished us all a sad goodbye as his family was moving to Nashville. He had heard that if you put on white clothes of a morning in that city they would be gray by afternoon. Chattanooga never had so bad a reputation despite the layer of pollution described above. I never saw anyone using a face-mask, as in other places on the globe. Maybe Missionary Ridge blocked some of the smoke if you happened to live east of it. My dad worked outdoors in our downtown area and his clothes never got unduly dirty. There were only rare and widely separated instances where black beads of soot had to be brushed, or blown, out of a chair before sitting down - and this mainly happened around schools I attended, where the heating system put out black smoke for a few minutes every morning before the flames came under control. It is true that many people heated their houses by coal furnaces back then - as did we, but I have not seen soot in many years! Our streets are certainly cleaner than those of New York and Philly! Chattanooga HAS been cleaned up!

Anyway, although visitors can now enjoy our public attractions and parks without undue fear of sitting on a dirty park bench, I would personally like to go somewhere for one day every fall where I could enjoy the smell of that sweet, mild pollution we used to get from those burning leaves!  Maybe even enjoy the feel of a yard-broom in my hands again! Anybody with me on that idea?

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin


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