Fireman Russell McCutcheon hosing away black sugar
first Ambridge Municipal Building
10th and Merchant Sts.
Courtesy Borough of Ambridge
Black sugar memories
I have vivid memories of my grandmother sweeping black sugar from the front porch every day, day after day, sometimes twice a day. The black sugar was light enough that each sweep of the broom would scatter the black sugar forward as if the soot were a dusting of dry snow.
I also remember my grandmother sitting on that porch's swing, talking with our next door neighbor, Mrs. Olkowski, who was sitting on her porch swing, about how it looked like blame for the black sugar could be traced to the power plant in South Heights, across the Ohio River.
Black sugar would find its way into the house too, deposited on window sills that had to be dusted daily when the windows were open during warm weather--which they frequently were in those days before homes had air conditioners.
Another summer memory was black sugar floating in the gutters along the sides of the Ambridge Borough Swimming Pool, or in drifts along the pool's bottom, carried by the current created by the pool filter. Before the pool would open, lifeguards would hose off the pool decks to clean them of black sugar.
In the winter, snow never stayed white for long before it was coated with a layer of black sugar. You could tell how many breaks in the snowfall had occurred by counting the number of layers of snow separated by black sugar.
The white sand in my backyard sandbox similarly would be topped regularly by a fresh layer of black sugar.
My family wasn't one to buy the latest in home appliances--I believe my mom was still using a wringer washer when I left for college in 1967--but my dad bought a gas dryer in the early '50s after he found my mom bringing in the freshly washed diapers she had hung in our backyard to dry, in order to rewash them, after black sugar had made them too filthy to use.
A rather gross childhood memory was my nose producing black and gray snot and "boogers" that I didn't realize at the time weren't the normal color of nasal mucous. How would I even know that? No adult who cared for me ever mentioned it, and I wasn't the kind of kid who went around comparing boogers with other kids. At least my nose mucous was trying to do its job, keeping at least some of the inhaled black sugar from traveling further into my body.
The history of the black sugar rain of aggravation
In the photo below, the dark areas of the sidewalk being swept in front of 997 Merchant St. are not puddles; they're black sugar. I believe that when the photo was taken in 1962, 997 Merchant was the Motive Parts store; it's now F. D. Strano Sales. The building to the right of 997 was the Pennsylvania State Liquor Store at 999 Merchant St; you can see part of its sign at the top of the photo. It still sells wine and liquor as the Ambridge Wine & Spirits Shop. Beyond that, across 10th St., are the old Ambridge Municipal Building and to the right of that, Pittsburgh Auto Equipment Co., 1007 Merchant St., now the home of Pizza House "Police Station" Pizza.
The photo once had a typed caption that's partly cut off in the copy of the photo I have. This is what I can read:
The 'black sugar' mess has scared away his customers...having nothing else to do--at least HE tries to keep Ambridge clean.
|Sweeping black sugar|
997 Merchant St.
July 30, 1962
Courtesy Borough of Ambridge
I don't know yet when the black sugar problem began in Ambridge, but it may have started when the area plants and mills switched to burning a different kind of coal than they'd previously used, maybe in the 1940s. Does anyone remember Ambridge before black sugar was such a nuisance?
The black sugar must have been especially bad in the summer of 1953. Ambridge residents were angry about the exceptionally heavy amount of black sugar that had fallen at least twice that summer. As a result the Ambridge Chamber of Commerce formed a committee to investigate the source of the problem.
The July 8, 1953, Beaver Valley Times quoted Art Bray, the Chamber's Executive Secretary, saying:
In an industrial area such as Ambridge, the residents can expect a certain amount of dirt. But the complaints have become so numerous that we couldn't side-step the issue...The chamber realizes that we are living in an industrial area and matters such as these take time to alleviate.The "time to alleviate" the problem turned out to be more than a decade, even though the primary source of black sugar was quickly identified as the J&L steel mill across the Ohio River in Aliquippa, perhaps with a contribution by Duquesne Light Co.'s Phillips Power Station in South Heights, also across the river.
Ambridge Burgess Walter Panek also appointed a committee after hundreds of complaints from residents poured in, and the Chamber didn't seem to be taking action quickly enough. Panek was quoted in the August 25, 1953, Beaver Valley Times as saying, "The situation has become unbearable."
One of the members of that committee, Dr. George H. Foster, complained, "We hear about the wonderful advances in science on smoke control, but where?--certainly not here!"
Jump forward to February 11, 1958, when, according to the Beaver Valley Times, the Ambridge Borough Council was again discussing the black sugar problem. Panek said that J&L had promised to correct the situation two years before, but had failed to do so. The Ambridge Board of Health reported that the black sugar actually was getting worse. Panek said, "Ambridge would be a fine place to live if it wasn't for the black sugar." But a Beaver Valley Times editorial two days later didn't sound sympathetic to Ambridge's plight: "It is a vexing problem, assuredly. But since Beaver County's economy is so greatly dependent upon heavy industry, we can all expect to put up with a certain degree of smoke and air pollution."
The October 6, 1958, Beaver Valley Times, wrote that black sugar continued to plague Ambridge, but suggested that the Phillips Power Station might be to blame, because black sugar had continued falling even though J&L and other local steel mills had been closed because of a steel strike.
In the late 1950s, the Air Pollution Control Section of the Pennsylvania Division of Occupational Health had done a study and found Ambridge had a "definite problem" with "particulate matter in the atmosphere." [Ambridge residents were shocked at this finding! Yes, that's sarcasm.] The "large and coarse" particulates were traced to the burning of pulverized coal. The report went on to say that Ambridge had a "relatively high concentration of suspended particulate matter," but couldn't pinpoint the exact nature of the soot or its source. (Daily Citizen, February 10, 1959)
Although Ambridge had passed the first air pollution control ordinance in Beaver County, the law couldn't be enforced beyond the borough's borders, so there was little Ambridge could do alone to control black sugar blowing from elsewhere. Finally, in 1960, the state passed the Air Pollution Control Act which addressed that issue, but apparently never enforced it in the Ambridge area.
The July 12, 1961, the Beaver County Times noticed that Ambridge had been plagued by black sugar "for several years." Only several years?!
By that time, the thoroughly fed up Ambridge Council President, Floree Aquino, was spearheading the fight against black sugar, and threatening to take legal action against J&L, noting in August 1961, "J&L corrected the pollution problem at its Pittsburgh plant and there is no reason why the firm can't do the same thing in Aliquippa." J&L claimed that it had already spent $5,000,000 to control air pollution at the Aliquippa mill and planned to spend more. (Beaver County Times, Aug. 15, 1961)
Later that month, Aquino, Panek, and other borough officials met with J&L Board Chairman Avery C. Adams at J&L headquaters in Pittsburgh. Aquino told Adams that black sugar was a health nuisance and "actually causing people to choose to live elsewhere." Adams told the Ambridge representatives that J&L knew the company had a serious problem at its South Mill in Aliquippa. "I assure you that we will start the engineering necessary to install the proper new control equipment immediately....We will solve this problem although it is going to take both time and money to do it." Aquino left the meeting feeling "well pleased." (Pittsburgh Press, August 24, 1961)
In January 1962, Aquino blamed black sugar for making Ambridge the "dirtiest community in western Pennsylvania" during a State Health Department hearing about air pollution regulations. The department and the Region 3 Air Pollution Control Association were taken on a bus tour of Ambridge and other Beaver County communities to see the smoke emitted by pollution sources. An extensive study of county air pollution and its sources was going to be started and would take about a year to complete. (Beaver County Times, January 18, 1962; Gettysburg Times, January 18, 1962)
Four months later, the Beaver County Times reported, "Ambridge has been plagued for some time by 'black sugar,' a soot-like substance, but Saturday's deluge was the worst seen here by Floree Aquino." Aquino blamed J&L of "gross negligence" and said he was going to contact J&L officials. Again. (Beaver County Times, May 21, 1962)
Over a year later, J&L again promised to do something about black sugar:
In response to a request from the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Commission, the company has agreed to install equipment at its South Mills boiler house, the alleged source of the "black sugar," to abate the pollutant. Work on the installation is expect to be started early next year.The June 24, 1963, Beaver County Times ominously noted:
This will be a costly project for J and L, whose Aliquippa Works is Beaver County's biggest industry. It comes at a time when J and L, like other American steel firms, is losing sales to foreign competitors. This competition from abroad is cutting into J and L's jobs and profits, yet the cost of the air pollution control equipment must be financed from profits.The next month, the Times wrote that the Region III Air Pollution Control Association had decided to ask the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Commission to adopt regulations to control the county's air pollution.
Tests of the air over the county made during the past two years by the State Department of Health have revealed that the volume of air pollution here is among the highest in the country. County residents pay heavily for these pollutants through medical bills, cleaning costs and home maintenance expenses.The Times said that local pollution was heaviest in Ambridge, Aliquippa, and Midland, with Ambridge especially suffering because of black sugar. (Beaver County Times, July 16, 1963)
Over a year later, the Commission hadn't yet approved air pollution regulations for Beaver County, and Aquino accused it of "dragging its feet." But there was good news. Aquino said that by October 15, the black sugar problem in Ambridge should end, as that was the date J&L was scheduled to begin operating air pollution controls in Aliquippa. (Beaver County Times, August 11, 1964)
If you guessed J&L missed that scheduled date, you guessed right. The company said delays in the shipment of vital parts of the smoke control equipment meant that its operation would need to be postponed for "a few weeks." J&L said it expected to have the equipment running before a January 1965 deadline.
I'm still looking for the date when J&L finally started operating its air pollution controls, and black sugar finally stopped falling on Ambridge. It does appear to have been sometime in 1964, as an article in the August 4, 1965, Times said that J&L was adding more smoke control equipment to clean dust from blast furnaces "in addition to the electrostatic precipitators and mechanical dust collectors which went into operation on the South Mills Boiler House last year." I'll update this article when I find a more exact date than "last year."