On June 11, the 2010 Ypsilanti Crossroads Summer Festival featured a rousing opening set from roots and blue grass band Dragon Wagon.
Dragon Wagon was joined on...read more
Maggie Smith was not looking forward to a forenoon of sewing pleats.
She put down her newest customer’s summer dress. Downstairs, she offered to get potatoes and eggs for her landlady Bertha Hudnutt, in whose home Maggie boarded.
Busy at the laundry wringer, Bertha thanked her and gave her 50 cents.
Returning home, Maggie walked east over the Michigan Avenue bridge. She looked up at the three big chimneys over the electric interurban car barn just east of the river. Bertha’s husband Merton worked there as a motorman. The breeze was sending the usual sooty smoke straight in the direction of the Hudnutt home on River Street. Oh, no, not again. Maggie walked faster.
She reached 106 River and went directly to the backyard, hurriedly placing the potatoes and butter in the grass. She ran to Bertha, who was frantically pulling damp wash off the line. Maggie coughed as the flakes of soot in the smoky air settled like tiny black snowflakes on the formerly clean laundry.
“Residents living in the vicinity of East Congress and River streets are bitterly complaining,” said the May 10, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press, “about the dense clouds of smoke which pour from chimneys at the Detroit, Jackson & Chicago railway barns situated on East Congress Street.”
The imposing car barns contained a powerhouse with three enormous coal-fired steam boilers that produced the electricity to run the interurban railway. Interurbans made their own juice because municipal electrical systems often had the wrong voltage for the cars. Also, municipal systems were still in their infancy—as late as 1919, the Detroit Edison Company was still running ads in Ypsi papers that began, “If your house is wired,…”
The 1909 paper continued, “The company officials pay no heed to the wails of the people living in that neighborhood and no promise of relief in the near future has been given to their protests.”
One way to solve the problem would be to install “smoke consumers,” which redirected the sooty pollution back into the firebox and eliminated much of the mess.
The News continued, “A smoke consumer would do away with the nuisance but as it is today, the dense clouds of smoke which are emitted from the chimneys now fill the air with such a large amount of soot that it is practically impossible for the people, who are for the most part home owners, to put any washing out in the yards to dry. They are compelled to sit indoors during the summer months as the soot falling down covers the white dresses and fills the eyes.”
The paper added that nearby residents planned to get up a petition to ask the railway to install the smoke consumers.
Those residents likely included the Hudnutt’s neighbors on River street.
At 101 River, 26-year-old Frank Randall operated a salvage wagon to support his 28-year old wife Emma. Though like the Hudnutts they had a lodger, they had little money; when Frank died about a year later, Emma went to work as a post office clerk.
At 113 River, the retired 49-year-old Sara Coleman lived with her son Chester, a 21-year-old machinist. Boarding with them was 30-year-old dry goods sales clerk Minnie Roys.
40-year-old interurban conductor Wilber Gillespie lived with his 33-year-old wife Hattie at 215 River. Next door lived another railway worker, 33-year-old Denton Glass with his 40-year-old wife Emma and daughters Jennie, Helen and Clara Bell, who also worked as a dry goods clerk downtown.
Preceptress of Ypsilanti High School, the 42-year-old long-time instructor Carrie Hardy lived with her 73-year-old father Henry at 223 River. Her diary, preserved in the Ypsilanti Archives, suggests that she did not tolerate much nonsense; she couldn’t have been happy with the pollution.
Whatever action the residents took, it worked. The problem was solved 15 days later.
“After several months of investigation, planning, and unremitting labor,” claimed the May 25, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press, “Assistant Supervisor Elmer C. Allen of the D. J. & C. railway announces that he has placed smoke consumers in the boilers at the local power house which practically does away with the greatest part of the smoke nuisance which has been the bane of the lives of the residents of River and Congress streets.”
The paper continued, “Mr. Allen has installed three Westinghouse consumers in the three boilers, the principle of the consumers being to actually cause the smoke and soot which ordinarily goes up the chimney, to fall back on the flame and be consumed.
“In each boiler are three quarter-inch jets, from which there is emitted live steam, which so dampens the soot that it becomes too heavy to rise and is thrown back on the bed of the fire.”
The system was demonstrated for the Press reporter.
“Mr. Ensign ordered the jets of steam turned off, and the smoke poured from the chimney above,” said the paper. “After five minutes or so, when the smoke had gained great headway and was pouring out of the chimney in dense clouds, Mr. Ensign ordered the jets opened and within an incredibly short time, the smoke ceased to come from the chimney and nothing but a white vapor was visible.”
“ ‘It has taken a great sum of money to install these consumers, but we had intended to do so for some time past,’ declared Mr. Ensign, ‘when the recent agitation came up and we hurried our plans rather than have any disagreement with the property owners in this vicinity. These consumers are effective and should remedy the nuisance.’ ”
The residents were so pleased that many wrote letters of thanks to Mr. Allen, said the paper.
The smoke had disappeared. In twenty more years, the interurbans would as well, displaced by automobiles. The interurban car barns eventually came down.
The era of sooty River Street laundry was over.