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Mayor Hans Tanzler skies on the St. Johns River, 1977. © Florida Times-Union.

Black Smoke

BLACK SMOKE FADES AWAY — Some things are best gone with the wind: We don’t see too many plumes of black smoke anymore. This dirty offender was the Southside Generating Plant in Jacksonville during the 1950s.

The city’s municipal power plants were dangerous perpetrators of pollution. In 1968, they emitted 77% of the area’s sulphur oxides, a harmful substance. Black smoke billowed up from their smokestacks until the late Sixties, when officials inaugurated new anti-pollution procedures. Environmental laws have made breathing much easier in Jacksonville, which regularly wins recognition as one of the finest places to live in America.

The Southside Generating Plant was located on the Southbank near the headquarters for the Jacksonville public school system. Workers imploded the 51-year-old plant in October 2001, for the City planned to clear the site for redevelopment.

The picture was snapped from a ship in the St. Johns. Although not seen, the Gulf Life Tower (SouthTrust Building) is situated nearby. In years past, the emulsions from the plant sometimes shrouded the Gulf Life’s upper floors in a fog-like mist.

SCI-FI SITUATION? — Local pollution really raised a stink in 1949. Along Jacksonville’s downtown streets, ladies were stunned to see their nylon stockings rot away from their legs. The women would become flush with heat and suffer a devilish tickling on their legs & ankles. Their hose would then shrivel and peel away in spots. The problem panicked so many residents that Life magazine sent a team to cover the story.

An airborne agent was responsible, but officials & scientists have never determined exactly what the culprit was. Some citizens blamed sickly-sweet industrial odors, while health officials established acid-bearing soot as the cause. Specifically, the instigator could have been the Inductanee, a floating electric plant that was docked at the foot of Laura Street, the location of The Landing today.

Years later, after the Inductanee had been long gone, another mysterious rash of hose-rot hit Jacksonville. And in 1961, air pollution caused vegetation to wither & die in the Springfield and Arlington areas.

“THE SMELL OF MONEY” — Until the late 1980s, Jacksonville was ridiculed as “The City that Stinks.” But we’re not going to complain, retorted some of the River City’s residents, “It’s the smell of money.”

Airborne odors had long plagued Jacksonville. On windy days, the city made its presence known up to thirty miles away. Various factories, particularly the paper processing plants, emitted odors that provoked these types of comparisons: “burnt milk,” “cooked cabbage,” “rotten eggs,” and just plain “fishy.” One native Jacksonville resident recalled the stench as being like “rotten baked potatoes with tabasco sauce.”

The River City reeked like a foul kitchen. In 1988, Mayor Tommy Hazouri announced that he wouldn’t accept the “smell of money” argument. Local government began to put teeth into stench fighting ordinances. Over time, these laws have freshened up the situation considerably. In addition, Jacksonville proved one of the first cities to establish a patrol unit specifically for odor pollution. The “odor police” tested air at various locations.

WATER-SKIING MAYOR — Not only has air quality much improved, but so has the condition of the water. In 1969, a state pollution official dismissed Jacksonville as “the cesspool of Florida.” Raw sewage dumped directly into the St. Johns, and few people would ever consider a dip in the river.

Eight years later, however, the mayor himself water-skied in front of the CSX building. On River Day 1977, Mayor Hans Tanzler, accompanied by pretty girls from Cypress Gardens, frolicked in the St. Johns. He showed that the waterway could be trusted for swimming after a multi-million dollar cleanup. Tanzler invited the whole city to celebrate. River Day included bands, balloons, helicopter rides, and a yacht parade.

There are certainly signs that the St. Johns is healthier than it used to be. One of them made itself known to the website manager of not long ago. As he walked over the Main Street Bridge one evening, he heard a “swishing” sound below, as if something were slicing through the water. He looked over the rail and spotted a dolphin jumping through the surface on its way back to the sea. These creatures normally avoid a really polluted river. The occupants of the downtown skyscrapers can even look down and occasionally see dolphins cavorting in the St. Johns.

Indeed, office workers from Jacksonville’sdowntown skyscrapers often see dolphins cavorting20 miles inland from the river’s mouth.There is room for improvement, but Jacksonville has made marvelous progress in the struggle against environmental problems.

~written by Glenn Emery


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