How Thomas Edison’s Cement Contributed to Donora’s Storied History

On a quiet, tree-lined street in artsy Montclair Township in northern New Jersey sits a squarish, greenish-gray house with a blue-and-white striped awning over the front door. A walkway of tessellating bricks leads from the sidewalk to a set of brick-faced stairs with thick, concrete treads. The two-story structure sits tightly between two newer, larger, multi-gabled, three-story homes, each with a stylish octagonal turret gracing its exterior.

One of Thomas Edison’s cement houses in Montclair, New Jersey

The dramatic presentation of the more modern homes makes the squarish structure in the middle seem even more distinctive than it otherwise might be. Passersby might think that the house, though pleasing, looks odd, out of place, antiquated. They could be forgiven for not realizing that the structure is not only unusual but also historic. It is, in fact, one of the first poured concrete homes ever built by one Thomas A. Edison.

Edison, famously known as the Wizard of Menlo Park, was born on Feb. 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, a village just few miles south of Lake Erie. The year Edison was born Milan exported more wheat than any other city in the world, save only Odessa, Russia. Edison was an excitable child and was so easily distracted that he drove his teachers to their own distraction.

After just twelve weeks of school, Edison’s mother, Nancy Matthews Edison, pulled him out and tutored him at home. He was seven years old. “My mother was the making of me,” Edison wrote. “She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.” 

Thomas Edison stands by his model of a concrete house, circa 1911.

His mother’s tutoring proved eminently successful. Young Thomas grew up to become arguably America’s greatest innovator, having invented the phonograph, an improved telegraph system, the motion picture camera, alkaline storage batteries, the first commercially-successful light bulb, wax paper, electric pens, talking dolls, and mail-order subscription. In all Edison received nearly 1,100 patents, including several for concrete products.

King of Concrete … For a Time

Edison had been experimenting with concrete for several years before constructing the Montclair dwelling in 1912. He started the Edison Portland Cement Company in 1899, a company that eventually failed but not before providing concrete for Yankee Stadium in 1922. Edison believed that homes for the masses could be built out of concrete simply, quickly, and inexpensively, and if they were built with Edison cement so much the better.

Concrete homes would be more durable than wooden homes and, more important, he believed, they would be fireproof. “The object of my invention,” Edison wrote in his 1908 patent application, No. 1219272, “is to construct a building of a cement mixture by a single molding operation — all its parts, including the sides, roofs, partitions, bath tubs, floors, etc., being formed of an integral mass of a cement mixture.”

One of Edison’s schematics from his original patent application

Edison wanted working-class families to have access to affordable, comfortable, and stylish homes, believing that workers and their families deserved those things as much as did their wealthier employers. “I am going to live to see the day,” he famously said, “when a working man’s house can be built of concrete in a week. If I succeed, it will take from the city slums everybody who is worth taking.” 

Edison calculated that the shell for a “decent house of six rooms” could be built with “only three hundred dollars.” Not just any shell, but an appealing one. “We will give the workingman and his family ornamentation,” he said. “They deserve it; and besides, it costs no more, after the pattern is made, to give decorative effects.”

The concept of poured-concrete houses failed to take the housing industry by storm, and indeed faded into obscurity before the end of the First World War. However, the homes built by Edison and his colleagues in Montclair and a few other spots prompted the construction of a much-needed neighborhood in Donora.

Housing Crisis Prompts Need

Donora had been created nearly wholesale out of woods and farmland between 1899 and 1901, and grew by leaps and bounds duriong the early 1900s. By the mid-1910s Donora was facing a extreme housing crisis. There were simply not enough homes for all of the employees of the new zinc mill, completed in 1915. Something had to be done.

Officials of the American Steel & Wire Company heard about Edison’s concrete homes and decided to use his designs to build enough concrete dwellings to house its managers and foremen. A total of sixty single-family houses and twenty duplexes were built in 1916–1917 on the southern-Donora hillside, a development large enough to accommodate 100 families.

Cement City,” the development came to be called. The houses still stand today, are filled with families, and continue to serve as a testament to Edison’s intense desire to improve the life of everyday Americans.

For more information on Cement City, read Brian Charlton’s exceptional article, “Cement City: Thomas Edison’s Experiment with Worker’s Housing in Donora.

What Donora’s Smog Plaque Gets Right … And Wrong

In 2008 a group of Donora-area residents presented a plaque to the town “in loving memory of the 1948 smog disaster victims.” The plaque is prominently affixed to a boulder near the Veterans Memorial on South McKean Avenue in Donora. It shows two columns of names, fourteen on the left and thirteen on the right, for a total of twenty-seven.

I wondered why there were so many names listed, when all of the news and magazine articles I read doing research for my book generally noted no more than twenty. Having extensively researched Donora, its history, and the smog, I can now confidently address the plaque’s accuracy and completeness, and I can say this to the group of residents behind the plaque: Your heart was in the right place, but the plaque is riddled with errors.

Plaque dedicated to smog victims

What the Plaque Gets Right

The plaque correctly lists the names of all actual victims. It doesn’t spell them all correctly, but the names are there:

  • Ivan Ceh
  • Barbara Chinchar
  • Taylor Circle
  • John Cunningham
  • Bernardo DiSanza (corrected 12/20/20 per his granddaughter)
  • Michael Dorincz
  • William Gardiner
  • Susan Gnora
  • Milton Hall
  • Emma Hobbs
  • Ignace Hollowiti
  • George Hvizdak
  • Jane Kirkwood
  • Marcel Kraska
  • Andrew Odelga
  • Ida Orr
  • Thomas Short
  • Peter Starcovich
  • Perry Stevens
  • Sawka Trubalis
  • John West

The plaque also rightly acknowledges the “many other lives” affected by the smog and that the smog was a “turning point” in the movement for cleaner air.

What the Plaque Gets Wrong

First, there are errors in the spelling of five surnames (right). The surname of Bernardo DiSanza, for instance, is spelled “Disanzi”. William Gardiner’s last name was often spelled without the i, so this error is forgivable. The misspelling of Mary Rozik’s surname is most certainly not, especially since Rozik family members continue to live in Webster. Bonnie and Shirley Rozik were among the first people I interviewed for my book and would have immediately set the record straight.

There is also no consistency in given names. For most victims the plaque lists a full first name. For some, though, it lists a shortened or casual first name. For instance, the plaque reads “Mike” rather than Michael Dorincz, “Jeannie” rather than Jane Kirkwood, and “Steve” rather than Stefan Faulchak. Why the plaque shows “Susan” Gnora rather than “Susie,” which is how everyone knew her, is beyond me.

The most likely explanation for so many spelling and formatting errors on such a prominent plaque is a lack of research. The people who prepared the plaque must have failed either to consult remaining family members of the victims or official records available at the time. My guess is that for some people the group used names that had been likewise misspelled in newspaper accounts at the time. In any case there clearly was not enough research done to ensure accuracy.

Perhaps if the group had asked historians familiar with the smog to review the list there would have been fewer errors. I can only assume from the wealth of errors that found their way onto the plaque that no reliable historian was consulted.

Misspellings aside, of the names of the twenty-seven people listed six of them did not die in the smog. They might have suffered during it — three of them definitely did — but they didn’t die in it. Let’s take a look at each of those six individuals.

Clifford DeVore. Mr. Devore, a carpenter, actually died May 5, 1949, from pneumonia. His name most likely made the list because he had been one of the people sent on a healthy-air vacation to Wilmington, North Carolina shortly after the smog ended. Having heard of the deadly smog in Donora the Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach Jaycees offered to host forty of the sickest survivors. They called the offer, eagerly and graciously accepted by Donora mayor August Chambon, the “Good WILLmington Mission.” DeVore was one of the people chosen by Donora physicians to go on the trip.

Gravestone of Stefan Polschak

Steve Faulchak. This one is a mystery. A headstone in Pittsburgh’s Birmingham Cemetery lists one “Stefan Polschak, Father.” He was born in 1874 and died June 7, 1949, seven months after the smog. Otherwise in the more than two years I spent researching the Donora smog I found just two other people with a name resembling “Steve Faulchak” who might have died around the time of the smog. I suspect that the plaque’s “Steve Faulchak” is the Stefan Polschak in the Pittsburgh cemetery. However, an AP article on Nov. 1, 1948, reported that a “Gustine Polchak” died in the smog, though it was later reported that he died from unrelated causes. Perhaps in someone’s memory “Gustine” morphed into “Steve” and “Polschak” was misheard as “Faulchak.” But those are simply educated guesses.

Ruth Jones. Ruth Jones, as near as I can tell, was a forty-five-year-old homemaker from West Newton, Pennsylvania. Her husband, Frank V. Jones, later signed on to a lawsuit against American Steel & Wire Company (AS&W) on behalf of Ruth, who died April 25, 1949, six months after the smog from complications of diabetes. So she was not a victim of the smog. She might have suffered from it, but she died too long afterward to be counted among those who perished as a direct result of the smog.

John Poklemba. There were a number of Polkembas in the area in the late 1940s, but only one, John Poklemba, is recorded as dying anywhere close to 1948. His identity was confirmed to me in 2018 by Bonnie Poklemba, wife of John’s nephew. John worked as a tractor operator for AS&W. An article in the Daily Republican from May 1949 indicated that Poklemba had become sick during the smog and never recovered. He perished May 24, 1949, from arteriosclerotic heart disease. Like Jones, Poklemba suffered during the smog but did not die as a direct result of it.

Mary Rozik. Mary Rozik (“Pozik” on the plaque) was a sixty-one-year-old widow from Webster who took ill during the smog. Like Clifford DeVore she was selected to go on the Good WILLmington Mission. She survived the smog, but continued to suffer lung problems until she succumbed on May 4, 1949, from pneumonia and asthma. A smog sufferer, but not a true victim.

Mary Rozik photo accompanying article on her death and that of Clifford DeVore

Alice Ward. Alice Ward was also one of the Mon Valley residents who traveled to North Carolina for rest and recuperation. A sixty-nine-year-old homemaker from Webster, Ward died March 20, 1949, from heart failure and chronic myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). Again, a sufferer, not a victim.

Of note is that all six people erroneously listed on the plaque as victims all died within just eighty days of one another, with two of them — DeVore and Rozik — perishing within a single day. Odd, but not unheard of.

Other people from Donora and Webster areas undoubtedly died during that same eighty-day period, so to single out those six individuals for the plaque seems rather odd. My guess is that because DeVore, Rozik, and Ward were sent to North Carolina, they were remembered as “victims.” How the other three — Faulchak, Jones, and Poklemba — made the list remains puzzling.

Defining Terms

I think the main reason for the plaque listing six people who didn’t die in the smog relates to how the group defined the word victim. For my book and in this blog I consider as victims only people who had died during the smog or within sixty days from a condition clearly related to the smog.

Only twenty-one people fit that definition. If the group that created the plaque defined a victim as someone who died either in or from the smog, then the list should have been much, much longer and included names of individuals who died over the following year at least. The US Public Health Services followup report on the smog disaster stated that:

Persons who reported acute illness at the time of the smog episode have demonstrated subsequently higher mortality and prevalence of illness than the other persons living in the community at that time. Furthermore, persons who complained of more severe acute illness in 1948 demonstrate greater subsequent morbidity and mortality than persons with mild complaints.

Regardless of how the plaque creators initially defined the term victim, their desire to remember and honor the people who suffered and died during the smog was laudable. It’s just a shame the final product was so dreadfully inaccurate.

No Strikes for Mr. Donner — The Battle of Virden

This is the last of a three-part series covering devastating strikes of the 1890s, strikes that surely helped cement anti-unionism in Donora’s founder, William Donner.

The gunfight lasted just ten minutes, but its effects reverberated within the coal mining community for decades. The year was 1898. William Donner was talking with James McKean, president of the Union Trust Company of Pittsburgh, about building a tin plate plant in Monessen. The nation was raging war with Spain over its refusal to withdraw from Cuba. And four days before Christmas Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium. In October of that year, in the tiny town of Verdin, Illinois, a war erupted between coal miners and coal barons from Chicago.

Coal miners at the time worked under horrendous conditions. “Profit was the sole object,” read a US Coal Commission report. “The life and health of employees was of no moment. Men worked in water half-way up to their knees, in gas-filled rooms, in unventilated mines where the air was so foul that no man could work long without seriously impairing his health. There was no workmen’s compensation law, accidents were frequent.”

In addition miners were frequently out of work during summers and had to move around to find work, usually as poorly paid day laborers. Miners and their families typically lived in company-owned houses, had to shop in company-owned stores, and were paid in a company script valid only at company businesses.

The formation of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1890 was a direct response to those deplorable conditions. The union called for a nationwide strike in 1897, though they expected little to happen in Illinois; the group counted fewer than 400 members in the entire state. Little did they know that thousands of Illinois miners would be swept into the UMWA movement by one man, Alexander Bradley.

‘General’ Alexander Bradley in an outfit he wore in mockery of how mine owners often dressed

Bradley had immigrated here from Britain when he was nine and had been working in coal mines throughout his life. He was 30 when the energetic and persuasive Bradley joined the national strike and led a march of miners in protest of their work conditions. Bradley was a veteran of hunger marches in Washington, DC, in 1894, and it was then that he not only gave himself the title of “General,” but also began wearing what would become his signature frock: a Prince Albert topcoat, silk top hat, and black umbrella with a curved handle.

Bradley led a fifty-mile march from Mt. Olive to Belleville in 1897, asking miners to join him in striking for better wages and shorter work hours. The march served as “a catalyst for marches across the coalfields that brought the union its first union contract, including the 8 hour day.”

The following year, Bradley again hit the pavement. “I want fifty men, real union men,” he said, “who will march with me to Virden, where we will be joined with other volunteers from Coffeen, Girard, Taylor Springs, Springfield, and Belleville UMW members. I want men who do not fear to fight and die for our just union cause if needs be.”

He gathered far, far more than fifty miners in his march; thousands joined him on his march to Virden. The miners of the local coal company struck.

The owners reacted strongly and decided to break the strike. It hired a large number of Black miners from Birmingham, Alabama, and brought them by train to the town. The miners had been told that they would be taking the place of miners who had left town to fight in the Spanish-American War.

Artist’s rendition of the Battle of Virden

When the misinformed strikebreakers arrived in Virden, at about noon on Oct. 12, they faced a throng of angry, armed miners at the station. The Birmingham minors were being guarded by armed agents of the Thiel Detective Service, a St. Louis agency. The guards immediately started shooting at striking miners.

Although the strikers fired back, they were outgunned. The Thiel agents had brought with them Winchester rifles, the latest in rapid-fire weaponry, and quickly overpowered the miners, who had brought only shotguns and hunting rifles. In all a dozen men were killed in the firefight — seven miners and five agents. Forty strikers lay wounded. None of the Birmingham men were hurt.

Gov. John Tanner had been urged prior to the event to send state militia to guard the miners arriving from Birmingham, but he refused. By the time he relented and sent the national guard, the battle was over.

The strike ultiimately led to an increase in hourly wages for the miners and served as a clear signal that the days of coal barons stepping on their minions were coming to an end. Today a large, bas relief monument stands in the middle of Virden, commemorating the fight for fair working conditions.

Battle of Virden Monument, sculpted by David Seagraves of Elizabeth, Ill., Figures across the top show labor activists and prominent individuals who played roles in the riot.

Part 1: The Homestead Strike

Part 2: The Pullman Strike

No Strikes for Mr. Donner — The Pullman Strike

This is the second of a three-part series covering devastating strikes of the 1890s, strikes that surely helped cement anti-unionism in Donora’s founder, William Donner.

George Pullman, a railroad engineer, designed and built the first luxury sleeper cars in the country, with stacked sleeping berths that made nighttime travel comfortable and reasonably priced. Pullman cars became hugely popular and in the middle 1900s were often featured in films, such as Hedda Hopper’s 1931 thriller The Mystery Train and Billy Wilder’s 1959 hit comedy Some Like It Hot.

Pullman built an eponymous company town to house workers for his factory and required all workers to live there. Housing costs in the town were as much twenty-five percent higher than in the surrounding areas, and when Pullman began cutting wages in late 1893 a conflict between management and labor seemed unavoidable.

By the spring of 1894 Pullman had cut wages by twenty-five percent. Workers revolted. Thousands walked off the job on May 11, closing the entire plant. Through coincidence, and perhaps fate, a new union had recently formed and was meeting in nearby Chicago. The union, the American Railway Union (ARU), was spearheaded by Eugene Victor Debs, a rising leader in the labor movement.⁠

Eugene Debs

Debs wanted Pullman workers to join the ARU, but they refused. So Debs, whose union members included switchmen, told his Chicago switchmen that they could no longer manage Pullman cars in railroad yards, at which point the switchmen were, predictably, fired.

Debs figured that a switchman strike would encourage railroad workers elsewhere to join ARU and also strike. He was right. By June 30 about 125,000 rail workers on twenty-nine railroads had walked off the job rather than work with Pullman cars. The coordinated strikes crippled Chicago rail yards and blocked nearly all rail transport through the city, one of the nation’s most important rail centers.

Desperate to appease the unions and dampen tensions in the city, President Grover Cleveland quickly signed S. 730 into law, a bill that had been languishing in the Senate for a year. The bill proclaimed that

the first Monday of September in each year, being the day celebrated and known as Labor’s Holiday, is hereby made a legal public holiday, to all intents and purposes, in the same manner as Christmas, the first day of January, the twenty-second day of February, the thirtieth day of May, and the fourth day of July are now by law made public holidays.

Thirty states had already been celebrating Labor Day, so Cleveland’s signature was viewed largely as a political move. “It was a way of being supportive of labor,” explained Indiana State University historian Richard Schneirov. “Labor unions were a constituency of the Democratic Party at the time, and it didn’t look good for Cleveland, who was a Democrat, to be putting down the strike.” ⁠

Cleveland wanted Illinois Gov. John P. Altgeld to use force to end the strike, and when Altgeld refused, Cleveland intervened. He used provisions in the Sherman Antitrust Act,⁠ as well as the Interstate Commerce Act, to procure a court injunction that blocked union leaders from “compelling or inducing” workers “to refuse or fail to perform any of their duties.”

Then he sent federal troops to Chicago in early July. That uninvited interference by the Government enraged the workers, and they began rioting. They flipped railroad cars and built blockades to prevent soldiers from entering the rail yards. “There was a lot of sympathy from people,” said Schneirov. “They would come out and try to help the railroad workers stop the trains. They might even [have been] initiators, standing in front of the tracks and chucking pieces of coal and rocks and pieces of wood. Then there would be lots of kids, lots of teenagers, out of work or just hanging around and looking to join in for the fun.⁠”

Artist’s rendition of rioting during the Pullman strike

A series of fires on July 7, 1894, presumably started by striking workers, destroyed seven buildings at the World’s Columbian Exposition, an event celebrating Columbus’s arrival in the New World. About 700 railcars were burned and some $340,000 of damage caused to the rail yards. That same day, troops from the National Guard fired into a crush of strikers, killing thirty and wounding at least twenty.

Debs and other ARU leaders were arrested, and the strike faltered. By August 2 the Pullman plant had reopened and trains again rumbled through Chicago. Putting down the strike had required a force of more than 14,000 federal troops and an assemblage of national guard troops, marshals, sheriffs, and police officers. Rail companies lost nearly $5 million in revenue, and workers lost nearly $1.4 million in wages. Debs and other ARU leaders were convicted of contempt charges and sentenced to prison. The Court stated in its decision that under the Sherman Act, “any restraint or trade or commerce, if to be accomplished by conspiracy, is unlawful.” ⁠

Debs would later form the International Workers of the World union, whose members were commonly called “Wobblies.” He also joined the Socialist Party and ran several unsuccessful campaigns for president. He was arrested in 1918 for giving an “anti-war speech” in Ohio.

Part 3: The Battle of Virden

Part 1: The Homestead Strike

No Strikes for Mr. Donner — The Homestead Strike

William Donner, the founder of Donora, never liked unions. He was a businessman seeking ever-increasing profits, and unions tended to cut into them. Donner had grown into his wealth during a time of intense union organizing and several crippling strikes. Let’s take a look at three of the more devastating strikes of that period in this three-part installment of “No Strikes for Mr. Donner.”

Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick were titans of the steel and coal industries and, for a time, business partners and close friends. They both suffered a loss of public respect over the Homestead Strike of 1892. Their relationship broke down completely five years later. The strike was, in many ways, the beginning of the partnership’s end.

The year 1892 was one of great unrest throughout the United States between labor and management. There had already been general strikes in New Orleans, Tennessee, Buffalo, Idaho, and New York. Soon there would be one in a mill town called Homestead in Pennsylvania. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie owned a steel plant in Homestead; his plant director was Henry Clay Frick. Steel prices had been dropping all over, and Carnegie and Frick wanted to slash wages at Homestead to maintain their revenue.

The mill was unionized, though, so they decided they needed to break the union. That way they could cut wages and increase hours as they saw fit.

Vacationing in Scotland as Frick was preparing his onslaught, Carnegie cabled Frick his support: “This is your chance to re-organize the whole affair. Far too many men required by Amalgamated rules.” “We are with you to the end.”

Andrew Carnegie and H. C. Frick

They were words Carnegie would come to regret, but at the time he wanted the union, Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers of North America, gone from his Homestead mill as much as Frick did.

Frick and union leaders in Homestead never really negotiated. Instead Frick took great pains to prepare for a strike he knew would come. With Carnegie’s support Frick built what came to be called “Fort Frick,” a ten-foot-high solid wooden wall with two rows of barbed wire on top that surrounded the entire mill complex. Holes for rifles were bored through the wall every twenty-five feet, and large pipes carrying pressurized water were laid along the interior perimeter, all the better for repelling invading strikers. When “negotiations” inevitably failed, Frick closed two of the mills, locking out 3,800 workers.

It was June 30, 1892.

Frick announced that starting July 1 the mills would be operated as nonunion mills, shutting out Amalgamated completely. The workers fought back and blocked all managers from entering the mills. Tempers soared on both sides.

Townspeople soon joined the strikers in preparation for an assault by management. A thousand men began standing watch the north-flowing Monongahela River, downstream and up, ready to defend their livelihood and repel whatever force Frick sent.

That force turned out to be guards from the nation’s first detective agency, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. The agency had been founded in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton and an attorney named Edward Rucker, who left the partnership during its first year. Born in the slums of Glasgow, Scotland, Pinkerton and his wife, Joan, immigrated to the United States in 1842 and settled in Dundee, Illinois.

Pinkerton Agency logo

Pinkerton was a born lawman, with a keen sense of equality and a drive to fight for the underdog. Stocky, with muscular arms and “searching, cool blue-gray eyes,” Pinkerton found his calling almost by accident when, out of pure curiosity, he led local police to a campsite being used by counterfeiters. In no time he was heading the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The company’s motto was “We Never Sleep,” and its logo consisted of a single, wide-open eye, a compelling image that eventually prompted the phrase “private eye.” By the time H. C. Frick hired the company to break up the siege at Homestead, Pinkerton was dead, having perished in 1884 from an infected tongue. His agency by that point employed 2,000 active agents and held some 30,000 more in reserve.

Frick’s force consisted of 300 Pinkerton men who, just after midnight on July 6, ascended the river on two barges being pulled by the steamers Tide and Little Bill, the latter of which was captained by the well-known Pittsburgh pilot William Berlean “WB” Rodgers, Sr. Rodgers had been contracted to collect men for pulling one of the barges downstream to Homestead. One of the men, John T. McCurry, testified later how Rodgers had enlisted him into service:

“I met Capt. William Rodgers on Smithfield Street. He said, ‘Are you doing anything, John?’ I said, ‘Nothing, only down at the ball games.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I have got a good job for you, and I will give you three dollars a day and your board, but I ain’t at liberty to tell you where I am going.’ I said, ‘All right.’”

Pinkerton guards aboard the barges had been ordered to enter the Homestead complex and assume control. Most of the guards expected they would meet little resistance.

Strikers, though, spotted the barges about a mile from Homestead and sounded the alarm. The barges were fired on from that point forward. Back in Homestead word traveled explosively through town. Myron Stowell, in a chronicle of the Homestead strike, reported:

The effect was electrical. It is impossible to comprehend the wild-fire-like rapidity with which the intelligence was communicated to every one in the borough, much less to understand by what facility the news spread. The town was instantly in an uproar. The preconcerted signal, blasts from the electric light plant whistle, filled the air with hoarse, ominous shrieks. Humanity began to pour from the houses and buildings all over the town. Men, women and children who but an instant before had been in sound sleep, thronged into the streets like panic-stricken sheep. Then the men began to shout: “On to the river!” “To the river!” “The scabs are coming!” “Don’t let the black sheep land!”

The streets suddenly filled with striking workers, friends, sympathizers, and some who didn’t know why they were there. The growing throng hollered their way to the riverbank. Many in the crowd carried pistols, rifles, or other weapons; others wielded clubs, sticks, whatever they could find to defend the mill. When the barges reached the docks, a few Pinkerton guards tried to drop a gangplank. One of the union leaders at the front of the mob yelled to the guards, “In the name of God and humanity, don’t attempt to land! Don’t attempt to enter these works by force!”

Strikers and townspeople in Homestead ready to fight

The guards responded, “We were sent here to take possession of the property and to guard it for this company…. If you men don’t withdraw, we will mow every one of you down and enter in spite of you. You had better disperse, for land we will!” Frick’s lawyer and Carnegie’s company counsel Philander Knox had warned the guards, perhaps with a wink, to obey the law and “confine themselves to protecting themselves and the company’s property.”

No one knows who fired the first shot, but shots fired there were. The barges had been stocked with a total of 250 Winchester rifles, 300 pistols, and a surfeit of ammunition. Capt. Rodgers later testified that he had no idea the barge he was pulling was filled with weapons, a claim undoubtedly meant to deflect blame away from Pinkerton and toward the strikers.

Striking workers threw everything they had at the barges. They bombed them with dynamite, flooded the river with oil to try to set them on fire, and even fired cannons at them from across the river. The barges remained afloat. After the initial attack the guards scrambled below deck to regroup. At one point a Pinkerton man raised a white flag, but he was shot and killed. The workers finally overwhelmed the guards and ended the siege.

The violence at Homestead shocked and humbled the great Andrew Carnegie. Even though the strike had led to the end of Amalgamated’s power and prompted Frick’s subsequent rise in the company, Carnegie died saying that he regretted the whole wretched affair. “Nothing I have ever had to meet in all my life” he wrote, “before or since, wounded me so deeply. No pangs remain of any wound received in my business career save that of Homestead.”

Final ‘Goodbyes’

Frick and Carnegie’s relationship disintegrated in 1899, when the bullheaded Carnegie forced the equally bullheaded Frick from the Board of Carnegie Steel. Two days prior Carnegie had visited Frick in his office to lay out his plan to remove Frick from the Board. Frick grew incensed. “For years I have been convinced that there is not an honest bone in your body,” Frick told Carnegie. “Now I know that you are a god-damned thief!”

Frick sued Carnegie and won, a stinging rebuke to Carnegie’s efforts. Late in Carnegie’s life, when he lay weak and dying, he reached out in a letter asking Frick to meet so that they might put aside their differences.

“So Carnegie wants to meet me, does he?” Frick asked the letter courier, Carnegie’s longtime personal assistant, James Bridge. “Yes, you can tell Carnegie I’ll meet him.”

Frick then crumbled the letter and tossed it back at Bridge. “Tell him I’ll see him in Hell, where we both are going.”

The two leviathans of the industrial era died just three months and three weeks apart, with Carnegie passing first on Aug. 11, 1919, from pneumonia at age eighty-four. Frick followed on Dec. 2, dying from heart failure at age sixty-nine. The men never reconciled.

Part 2: The Pullman Strike

Part 1: The Homestead Strike

Blasts From the Past

Donora’s blast furnaces, as well as the Carrie blast furnaces in Homestead, were enormously complex beasts. The processes they used to produce raw steel were carefully managed by teams of engineers and highly skilled workers. But the basic processes have been around for centuries.

Basic operation of a blast furnace

A blast furnace is essentially a container for chemical reactions. It is shaped somewhat like an Erlenmeyer flask, with a wide base and narrow top. Heated air is forced into the base of the “flask,” while various solid elements are fed into the top. Those elements include iron ore, limestone, and coke, the three main ingredients needed to make steel.

Working at a blast furnace was always dangerous, though not necessarily for the same reason. The first blast furnace in the United States was built in a tiny Virginia settlement called Falling Creek, along the James River a few miles south of Richmond. Englishman John Berkeley had been overseeing the construction of the furnace in 1622 when a group of Native Americans, led by a man named Opechancanough, suddenly attacked the settlement.

Opechancanough

Opechancanough had been chief of a covey of about thirty-two tribes, called the Powatan Confederacy, whose members all spoke Algonquian, a language responsible for a wide variety of words in today’s English, including moose, raccoon, hickory, squash, succotash, moccasin, tomahawk, and toboggan. The Powhatans, also known as Virginia Algonquian, were initially led by Opechancanough’s brother, Powhatan, who had maintained a degree of peace between his tribes and the settlers. When Powhatan died in 1618, his brother became chief.

Opechancanough—which means, rather ironically, “He Whose Soul is White”—despised English settlers, in particular John Smith, he of Jamestown fame. Smith had captured Opechancanough’s father, Chief Powhatan, at gunpoint several years earlier. From his ascent to chief until his death in 1644 Opechancanough conducted a great many raids on white settlements, including a coordinated wave of simultaneous attacks on March 22, 1622. Opechancanough and his men decimated a number of settlements and slaughtered everyone they could find. Somewhere between 300 and 500 settlers died over a span of just a few hours. Among the first sites to be attacked was Falling Creek. Berkeley and twenty six other settlers perished in the raid, and the furnace was destroyed.

The Falling Creek furnace might have been operational for a time, but never functioned to full capacity. It would be nearly a quarter-century before Saugus Iron Works, along the Saugus River ten miles north of Boston, manufactured the first product from a successfully operating blast furnace. It was a three-legged, softball-sized cooking pot, similar to a Dutch oven, and is known today as the Saugus Pot.

As northern settlers began moving south, they looked for significant iron ore deposits along the way. When they found them, they constructed a blast furnace nearby. The Hopewell Furnace in Elverson, Pennsylvania, eighteen miles northwest of Valley Forge, was erected sometime around 1771 and supplied 115 large cannon for the Continental Navy. It also provided the ten-inch mortar shells used in the Yorktown battle, the final major battle of the Revolutionary War.

Ruins of Alliance Furnace

The Alliance Furnace, the first blast furnace built west of the Allegheny Mountains, stood beside a bend in Jacob’s Creek about two-and-a-half miles east of the Youghiogheny River. Pittsburgher William Turnbull had acquired 300 acres of land, and then he and his partners, John Holker and Peter Marmie, constructed the furnace in 1789, with its first blast occurring in November. The furnace wasn’t terribly efficient and was closed for good in 1802. Only ruins remain today.

Map showing location of Alliance Furnace

A great many blast furnaces were built in Western Pennsylvania after the Alliance Furnace. The table below provides information about early blast furnaces built in Fayette County alone!

If you haven’t visited a blast furnace site, give it a go. And with apologies ahead of time, have a blast!

Founder of Donora Biked ‘High’

Who was Prince Wells, and how did he get the great William Donner so blinkin’ high?

William Henry Donner, founder of Donora, was an astute, no-nonsense businessman. He became business partners with some of the wealthiest men in history, including Henry Clay Frick and the Mellon brothers, Andrew and Thomas, owners of US Steel. He was stern, quiet, stolid.

He was also highly competitive, and in his younger years enjoyed bicycling. In 1884 Donner enticed a few friends to run high-wheel bicycle races in Columbus, Indiana, where he lived at the time. High-wheel bicycles, also called ordinaries or penny farthings, were popular at the time, and Donner enjoyed the spectacle and danger of them, including their apparent ability to draw the interest of members of the opposite sex.

“We visited nearby towns on our wheels for advertising purposes,” Donner wrote in his privately-published memoir, “but mixed those trips with pleasure, as there were some very attractive girls in Seymour and Edinburgh. Several times we were detained so late that we returned via train.”

W. Prince Wells

Donner once won a high-wheel race against W. Prince Wells, a well-known trick bicyclist from Kentucky. Donner used a bit of trickery himself in what was called a slow race. In a slow race competitors would pedal as slowly as they could for a hundred yards, and then race to the eventual finish line, often another hundred yards. Slow races served largely as entertainment for audiences, and no one took them terribly seriously, least of all Donner. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t try to win, however. Donner described the time he beat Wells this way:

“The track was divided by strings into courses 10 feet wide. A contestant who touched a string, stood still, or fell off fouled and was disqualified. It was easy to stand still but difficult to continue at a slow gait. The danger points were when the pedals of your wheel were near their high and low points, because if you exerted sufficient pressure to move the wheel beyond those critical points, you were likely to pick up speed, run on the foul line, or fall off.

“I discovered that when the pedals were near those points I could take hold of the rim of the wheel with my hand and push it slowly and maintain my balance. It was that little trick which gave me the race. My competitors attempted to go too slowly and were all quickly disqualified, with the exception of Prince Wells. Finally he looked back to see me, and when he discovered that I was pushing the wheel with my hand part of the time, he laughed and fell off, so that I had no competitor the last half of the race.”

Donner was also an honest man, a gentleman in every sense. After describing his “win” against the hugely successful Wells, Donner admitted with all sincerity, “If Wells had thought of pushing the wheel with his hand [as I had], and had an hour or two to practice, I would have had no chance against him.”

The Carnegie-Donora Connection, Part 2: Donner Vertically Integrates Donora Mills

(Continued from The Carnegie-Donora Connection, Part 1: Frick Shows Carnegie Value of Vertical Integration

Henry Clay Frick had apprehended the value of vertical integration—owning and controlling both production and distribution—from the start. So when Frick, Andrew and Thomas Mellon, and Donora’s founder, William Donner, joined forces in 1899 to build steel mills along the Monongahela River, employing the tenets of vertical integration there must have been a foregone conclusion.

One of two blast furnaces remaining at the Carrie Blast
Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Rankin, PA

Donner located all of his mills in Donora on the western side of the Mon. He located three types of furnace at the southern end of the mill complex: blast (video in new window), Bessemer (video in new window), and open hearth. The three furnaces each worked somewhat differently and produced steel in a variety of compositions, depending on customer needs. Donner probably chose the southern end for his furnaces based at least partly on where most of the coke used by the furnaces would come from.

A wide swath of coke deposits ran from northern Pennsylvania diagonally south through West Virginia all the way down to the middle of Alabama. Much of Donora’s coke, then, came into town from the south, mostly from coal and coke towns farther south and west than Donora, and perhaps some from West Virginia as well.

Much of that coke, as well as limestone and raw ore, reached Donora on barges that traveled downriver through a series of nine locks and dams. Barges would pull into the docks and unload their wares onto freight cars, which would then distribute the coke, ore, and limestone to furnaces throughout the mill complex.

The furnaces burned coke, ore, and limestone to make molten iron. From there the iron would be sent to a series of steel mills for processing. Donner placed those processing mills—the blooming mill, nail mill, rod mill, and wire works<em>north of the furnaces. The steel mills produced an assortment of products, from construction nails to sheets of steel to Ellwood fences, a type of fence made of wires woven in a repeating diamond pattern. American Steel & Wire Co., the division of US Steel that ran the steel mills in town, advertised its Ellwood fencing products for anyone “needing an efficient farm, field or ranch fence, secure against outbreaking or inbreaking horses, cattle, hogs, pigs, sheep, dogs, poultry or rabbits.” 

Finally, north of those mills, past the Donora-Webster bridge and about two miles north of the blast furnaces, was built the Zinc Works. Producing zinc required fewer processes than did steel production, so the buildings needed to make zinc could be located far enough away from the steelmaking operations to stand on their own but close enough to benefit from some of those same operations.

Monongahela Connecting Railroad Bridge and the Hot Metal Bridge. Note the hot-metal ladle car at the end.

The design of the mill complex, employed Carnegie’s (read: Frick’s) vertical integration concepts. With the furnaces and steel mills all on one side of the Mon there was no need for the kind of hot-metal bridges used in Carnegie’s steel plants in Pittsburgh.

Hot-metal bridges were specially made to handle extremely heavy loads of extremely hot materials that had been poured into sturdy, torpedo-shaped train cars. The cars carried molten steel from the blast furnaces on the west side of the Monongahela to the steel mills on the west side for processing. That journey was a hugely time-consuming, expensive, and inefficient process.

Donner’s one-side-handles-all design, on the other hand, proved far superior to Carnegie’s Pittsburgh operations and was an example of how the concepts of vertical integration can be successfully implemented in a metal-making operation.

The Carnegie-Donora Connection, Part 1: Frick Shows Carnegie Value of Vertical Integration

Andrew Carnegie was a brilliant businessman and, in many ways, an innovator as well. He is often given credit for creating the concept of vertical integration, sometimes termed vertical combination. In vertical integration a company manufactures and also distributes its products, which provides nearly total control over the creation of products. Pabst Brewing Co., for instance, owned not just breweries but also saloons where its beer was sold and forests to harvest the wood to make barrels.

Andrew Carnegie

Carnegie didn’t invent vertical integration, however. He was actually against the entire prospect at first. It was Henry Clay Frick who persuaded Carnegie to appreciate the value of vertical integration.

In the early 1890s Frick had begun promoting the purchase of iron mines in the Mesabi Iron Range in northwest Minnesota. The area possessed ore of superior quality. Owning the ore mines, Frick reasoned, would cut independent ore suppliers out of the equation and reduce the cost of making steel. Most of the mines in the Mesabi area were owned by one family, the Merritts, who also owned a railroad system to carry ore from their mines to an immense wooden dock in nearby Duluth, a growing city at the western tip of Lake Superior. From there Merritt ore could be delivered to any point fed by the Great Lakes waterways.

A businessman from Pittsburgh, Henry W. Oliver, was at the time speculating in iron. He visited the Merritts and their operation in 1892 and purchased one of their ore deposits. Oliver tried to entice his colleague Carnegie into investing in the Mesabi Range, but the steel magnate turned him down cold. Carnegie didn’t like Oliver, nor did he trust him. Carnegie once wrote to Frick, “Oliver’s ore bargain is just like him—nothing in it. If there is any department of business which offers no inducement, it is ore. It never has been profitable, and the Mesabi is not the last great deposit that Lake Superior is likely to reveal.” 

Henry W. Oliver

While Carnegie balked at Oliver’s entreaties to invest in Mesabi ore, Frick jumped at the chance. Frick understood the potential value of investing in the area and purchased stock on his own, separate from his boss, Carnegie. Frick also knew that the richest man on Earth, John D. Rockefeller, was preparing to invest heavily in Mesabi ore. If Frick didn’t invest, Rockefeller would take over everything. Rockefeller could see the value of owning the ore mines even if Carnegie couldn’t. “I was astonished,” Rockefeller said, probably aiming mostly at Carnegie, “that the steelmakers had not seen the necessity of controlling their ore supply.” 

The president of the Merritt’s company at the time, Lon Merritt, met with Rockefeller in the summer of 1893. The company had taken a terrible hit during the Panic of 1893, a stock market crash that stemmed from the nation turning from a gold-and-silver standard to a gold-only standard, and was barely hanging on. Rockefeller and Lon Merritt finally decided to consolidate their mining interests in the area into a single company, Lake Superior Consolidated Mines. Rockefeller infused $2 million in the company to support the new venture, but it wasn’t enough. By February 1894 the Merritts, unable to meet their debt obligations, were forced to sell all of their stock in the company to Rockefeller.

John. D. Rockefller

Frick’s investments, on the other hand, were paying off handsomely. Frick tried again to persuade Carnegie to partner with “Rockafellow” in a Mesabi Range venture. (Carnegie commonly misspelled his competitor’s name, and Rockafellow was a favorite.) When Rockefeller first purchased the Merritt holdings, Oliver had grown fearful that he would continue buying mines throughout the region, including his own, so he contacted Frick and Carnegie.

Carnegie had heard enough. Regardless of his anathema toward Mr. Oliver, Carnegie hated Rockafellow more. He also finally recognized the value of the offer. He grabbed half of the stock in Oliver’s mining company for $500,000, knowing that he owned the steel mills that could make immediate use of ore. Rockefeller owned no such mills and knew that he would be forced to sell whatever Mesabi ore he mined to Carnegie, a less than ideal arrangement. The conditions proved ripe for an agreement.

Henry Clay Frick

At Carnegie’s request Oliver and Frick began negotiations with Rockefeller’s team, with Carnegie telling Frick, on October 27, that the “Rockafellow negotiation should be hastened and proposition got for our consideration.” Carnegie grew anxious, though, and didn’t quite trust his negotiators to close the deal. He wrote directly to Rockefeller three days later to do it himself.

Our people have been conferring with your Mr. Gates upon an alliance which would give us all the ores we can use from your properties. The differences between the two seems to have been so great as to cause a failure of the negotiations. They came to see me today and explained these differences, which do not seem to me too irreconcilable, if both parties realized, as I do, the mutual advantage of such an alliance, and were prepared to meet each other halfway. When Mr. Gates submits the matter to you, as I suppose he will, and you concur in this, I believe you and I could fix it in a few minutes, and I shall be very glad to go and see you if you think it worth while to take the matter up. It is a big operation, and needs to be looked at in a broader light than either Mr. Gates or Mr. Leishman, perhaps, are justified in taking.

The two giants finally came together and joined Oliver in an agreement. Oliver would mine the ore. Rockefeller’s ships and railroads would transport all ore from the Lake Superior region. Carnegie’s operations would then produce steel from the ore. Rockefeller and Carnegie agreed never to compete with one another; Rockefeller would not enter into the steel business, and neither man would lease or purchase new mines in the Mesabi region for the fifty-year term of the agreement.

Carnegie had at last seen the true value in vertical integration. By controlling the flow of ore from the mine to the mill, Carnegie could “figure the cost within a trifle and take contracts ahead without danger.” In a letter to his cousin in 1898 Carnegie said, “It is clear to me that profit is to be made in steel manufacturing only by the concerns which do every step in the process themselves.”

Go to Part 2: “Donner Vertically Integrates Donora Mills.

Should Chadwick Boseman Have Worked During His Cancer Treatment?

Let me get two things out of the way:

First, I loved Chadwick Boseman. He was a wonderful actor and seemed for all the world a lovely, kind, decent man.

Second, my beloved mother died of colon cancer a couple of years after it had metastasized to her liver. She died young, just 56. So I have a special, immeasurable hatred of colon cancer.

When news broke of Boseman’s death of that horrible, despicable, repugnant disease, I was first stunned and saddened that we lost a truly great human. Then another thought came, and I didn’t like it.

Why on earth would he have chosen to work as hard as he clearly did while undergoing chemotherapy and, most likely, at least one operation to treat his illness? Why would he have continued those horrifically long days filming movies, as well as all of those horrifically long days promoting the films —all the meet-and-greets, the red carpets, the interviews, the flying all over the globe. Why?

He must have been constantly fatigued. He certainly pushed his body to the brink during production, and for an actor that’s commendable. But for a human with a systemic, potentially deadly disease, all of that physical and emotional work must have taken a substantial toll on his overall health and how well his body responded to the chemotherapies. It had to have.

Boseman was a strong, muscular, energetic artist, and his body proved capable of withstanding an enormous amount of stress, but no body can keep up that kind of punishing schedule over the long term.

Now, I obviously don’t know any of the particulars of Boseman’s treatment, his prognoses over the years, or his own reasons for working so much during therapy. Perhaps he knew, somehow, at some level, that he wouldn’t survive and so decided to leave as large a legacy as he could in the time he had left. I don’t know.

What I do know is that each of the many decisions he made over the last few years — signing on to do this movie or that, attending this premiere or that, sitting down for late-night interviews, and myriad other decisions — must have greatly affected his overall health. He would have known that; he was far too intelligent not to have. His doctors probably told him so as well; they would have been negligent if they didn’t. Yet he made those decisions anyway.

Maybe I would have done the same. Maybe if I knew what Chadwick knew, maybe I would have continued to work too, maybe there was no other acceptable choice. I don’t know.

But I wish he hadn’t worked so hard. I wish he had taken it easier. I wish the treatments had worked.

Most of all, though, I wish he was still with us.

I’m Not Dead Yet!

I was just reading this news story about a young Detroit woman who had been declared dead at a hospital but was subsequently found at the funeral home to be still alive, shockingly just before she would have been embalmed.

Now, what happened to that young lady is horrible, terrible, and I’m so glad she is still alive, as of this writing. But having something similar happen at a hospital where I was working many, many years ago, there can also be a lighthearted, yet still tragic, side.

To Wit

I was working part-time as an RN in the critical care unit of a small Connecticut hospital when a code blue was sounded from the medical step-down unit next door. Code blues then, as often now, signal that a patient has become suddenly ill and needs the immediate attention of a team of cardiorespiratory professionals. One or more ICU nurses typically attended codes back then, and this particular time I went.

I worked with the physicians, nurses, and other team members in a crowded semi-private room to resuscitate an older woman whose heart and breathing had stopped. At one point I and another nurse wheeled the woman’s roommate, in her bed, into the hallway, to shield her somewhat from the frantic goings-on in the room. I explained that we were doing everything we could to save the woman. The roommate nodded understanding, but she was obviously concerned.

Back in the room we worked and worked, but to no avail. We couldn’t get her heart restarted, and she had no blood pressure. Her own physician ran the code; she happened to have been on the unit at the time. She and I had known each other several years at that point, so I wasn’t surprised when changes in her voice and countenance signaled that she was transitioning from an intense, let’s-do-this approach to one of acceptance of the reality of a life ending. She looked at me with a I think I should call it kind of look, and I responded with a look of Yes, it’s time.

“Okay, that’s enough,” she said. She declared the time of death and went to call the family. The rest of us began the post-code cleanup process, but it was dinnertime and trays needed to be passed around to the other patients. The unit’s head nurse told her staff to pass trays quickly and then finish the cleanup. I headed back to ICU, but on the way I explained to the roommate what had happened. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, “she seemed nice.”

This Is Where It Gets Interesting

I had been back in ICU for probably ten minutes, when I decided to help the step-down unit and start cleaning up in the code room. We were slow in the unit, so why not? What I saw at the bedside compelled me to alert the physician; let’s call her Maggie. (I called nearly all physicians by their first name once I got to know them.)

“Maggie, It’s Andy. I’m with the patient we just coded, and I think you should get up here. She’s still breathing.”

“I’m sure she’s not breathing, Andy, it’s probably just agonal respirations.” Now, I had been around the block a few times, and I knew agonal respirations from normal respirations. Agonal respirations are quasi-breaths that can occur after death. They tend to be abrupt, almost a gasp, and are the result of a reflex of the brainstem in the last biochemical throes of life. These were most certainly not agonal respirations.

“I don’t think so, Maggie. Her respiratory rate is 24…”

“What?”

“… and her pulse is 90.”

“But I already called the family!”

“Uhhh.”

“I called the funeral home too.” Maggie was becoming distraught. “They’re on their way over now! What am I supposed to tell them?”

“Well, I gotta tell ya, I don’t think they’ll take her like this.”

I had already put the woman back on oxygen by this point and had assessed her vital signs, and Maggie arrived moments later. She stood on the other side of the bed from me, and we both looked down at the lady, whose color had perked up and who continued to breathe pretty well for someone who had been pronounced dead not long ago.

I said, “I think we need to get her back into the unit.”

“Yes, I guess so.”

With that we wheeled the “dead” woman out the door and down the hall past her roommate, whose eyes swelled open in stunned disbelief. I could almost hear her stammer out the words, “But, but, you said…”

Unfortunately the woman died about two days later, her body too weak to continue its miracle journey. She never regained consciousness. When she finally — and for real — passed away, poor Maggie had to call the family and the funeral home again.

What were the first words out of the mouth of the family member and the mortician who received those calls?

Right.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Maggie told them, “I’m sure.”

The Pain of Dying Alone

I’ve just read a New York Times article by an ICU physician called, “When You Die of the Coronavirus, You Die Alone.” It is a heartrending look at the final days of COVID-19 patients whose family members are being blocked from being with their loved one in their greatest time of need for fear of spreading the virus.

The article made me think of the smog victims in Donora that dreary October weekend in 1948. Eleven of the victims were married at the time of their death, and because families back then were so close I want to believe that most of them died with family by their side. We know that Bernardo Di Sanzi died with his loving wife, Liberata, by his side. Many others, though, were single or otherwise alone. Did they die alone? I hope not.

In the article the physician, Daniela Lamas, explores the pain of a policy that must be implemented for the greater good. “Here in my hospital,” she writes, “as in so many others throughout the country, we’ve banished most visitors. It’s a tough decision that leaves our patients to suffer through their illnesses in a medical version of solitary confinement. And I’m worried for them. Because those of us on the front lines simply don’t have a plan for this.”

The attitudes about allowing families to remain with extremely ill patients changed over time, particularly during the last twenty or so years of the twentieth century. Rather than preventing family from entering a critically ill patient’s room, we realized the health benefits that come from a husband’s touch, a wife’s soothing voice, a child’s smile. Since that time most hospitals have welcomed families with open arms.

But this damn virus is changing that. Dr. Lamas told one couple, the wife on a respirator in the unit, that her loving husband couldn’t visit anymore, that the visit today would be the last. Listen to the pain in her voice about what happened the next day.

I entered the unit, headed to my patient’s room. She was awake already, breathing quickly on the ventilator, eyes wide. When she saw me, she started to mouth words. Her husband would have been able to understand, but her lips moved quickly and I had no idea what she was trying to say. She soon grew frustrated. “I’m sorry,” I told her. But she was done. She closed her eyes and turned away, toward the empty chair next to her bed. I apologized once more and then, as my pager summoned me down the hall, I stepped from the room, leaving her alone.

Hug your loved ones today. With this deadly, despicable virus on the loose, who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Writing in the Time of Coronavirus

Writers tend to work mostly in their home office, sitting at a computer, with books and papers scattered hither and yon around them. I normally spend the majority of my day that way, banging away on the keys or with highlighter and pen in hand, going over books and printed articles about my topic, the Donora Death Fog.

Normally.

Now is not a normal time. Now is the time of coronavirus, when we’re all practicing social isolation and washing our hands like Howard Hughes wannabes. Me, I don’t mind. I’m normally home anyway, and I tend to wash my hands frequently through the day. I still have to get up and down all day to let the dogs in and out. (For cryin’ out loud, Lola, you just went out!) So my days aren’t terribly upset.

Lola wants to go out. Again.

But my mind is. I am, at this age, what many people would call “old.” I don’t call it that, I call myself “highly experienced.” So there.

I know that this virus affects older people more harshly, as most viruses do, and the mortality rate for us is significantly higher than that for younger folks. I don’t have any pulmonary issues, thank goodness, but I’m not as strong as I used to be either. I know that if I contract coronavirus I’ll probably get whacked pretty hard. It’s possible I’ll even die as a result.

So as I sit in my chair, working on my book, those kinds of thoughts pass through my aging head regularly, all day long. Not constantly, but enough so I feel their weight.

Still, I’d rather be home writing, with my wonderful wife home as well, than anywhere else. And for that I’m grateful.

Was There a 21st Victim of the Donora Death Fog?

Back in October 2019 I posted what I believed to be the final list of 20 victims of the Donora Death Fog. Well, I was wrong. There were actually 21.

Before I get to who the 21st victim was, let’s start with a bit of context. Newspapers and magazine articles right after the smog listed a variety of totals in the number of people who died during the smog, what I’ll henceforth call victims. Early accounts typically used 19 or 20, sometimes 21. With so much confusion, obtaining an exact total proved difficult, never mind getting all the spellings correct.

Then in 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the smog, a group of Donorans, called the Smog Committee, unveiled a plaque in honor of 27 victims. The plaque erroneously included names of individuals who died in 1949, not 1948. So, how many actually died from the smog?

Plaque unveiled on 60th anniversary of the smog

UPDATE The Society for Better Living, an anti-smog organization based in Webster, also produced a plaque listing several erroneous names, including one that has not appeared elsewhere, to my knowledge, that of Eugenio Perez. Mr. Perez was a metal drawer at the Zinc Works and died at 57 from heart failure in July 1949. So I am not considering him a direct victim of the smog.

Plaque from Society for Better Living

A 1949 report on the tragedy by the US Public Health Service, the precursor to the Department of Health and Human Services, listed 20 victims. The report also included a list of individuals who had been hospitalized during or immediately after the smog.

One person on that list was admitted during the smog on Oct. 30, treated, and released on Nov. 10. He was then readmitted on Dec. 3. Unfortunately he failed to respond to treatment, and he died just before Christmas, on Dec. 22. His name was George Hvizdak, often spelled Weisdack.

Now, should Hvizdak be considered a victim if he died so long after the smog?

I believe he should, and here’s why. According to George Leikauf, PhD, Professor of Environmental and Occupation Health at the University of Pittsburgh, air pollution epidemiologists typically use a delay period after an event to account for individuals whose conditions put them at increased risk of death from the event.

Dr. Leikauf says that an autopsy indicated that Hvizdak suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, possibly from smoking. He was a farmer who lived in Sunnyside, on the Webster side of the Monongahela. Prevailing winds carried an enormous amount of air pollution over Webster, so even if Hvizdak never smoked a day in his life, he would have breathed air pollution from Donora almost daily as he worked his farm.

Air pollution also accounts for another condition of his, pulmonary anthracosis. In pulmonary anthracosis, particulate matter — primarily carbon — in polluted air gathers in the lungs. Over time the carbon and other particulates interfere with breathing and with the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs.

Micrograph of lung with pulmonary anthracosis. The black areas are deposits of carbon.

Hvizdak, then, suffered from two conditions intimately connected to air pollution: COPD and pulmonary anthracosis. With his preexisting conditions and his hospitalization during the smog, and with the delay period used by epidemiologists of 40–80 days, it makes sense that his death was directly related to the smog event.

So, Dr. Leikauf, what’s the bottom line?

The bottom line, per the good Dr. Leikauf, “George Hvizdak is the 21st victim.”

Gravestone of George Hvizdak in St. Michael’s Cemetery

Here, then, is the FINAL list of victims of the Donora Death Fog:

  • Ivan Ceh
  • Barbara Chinchar
  • Taylor G. Circle
  • John C. Cunningham
  • Bernardo Di Sanza
  • Michael Dorincz
  • William Gardner
  • Susan Gnora
  • Milton E. Hall
  • Emma Hobbs
  • Ignace Hollowiti
  • George Hvizdak
  • Jane L. Kirkwood
  • Marcel Kraska
  • Andrew Odelga
  • Ida Orr
  • Thomas A. Short
  • Peter Starcovich
  • Perry Stevens
  • Sawka Trubolis
  • John R. West

How Were Lawsuits Settled After the Donora Death Fog?

Lawyers spend a great deal of their time shoveling smoke.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

There was an enormous amount of “smoke” in the Donora-Webster valley back in October 1948, and for the next few years much of the residual was being shoveled by lawyers suing one of the US Steel companies in Donora on behalf of some of the smog victims. Let’s take a look at how one of those suits was settled.

The first suit filed was on behalf of John Gnora and his family against American Steel & Wire (ASW), a subsidiary of US Steel but a separate corporation on paper. (It’s complicated; I’ll explain it in my book.) Gnora was the executor of the estate of Suzanna “Susan” Gnora, his wife, who died at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning Oct. 30, in the thick of the smog. The family’s lawyer, Marvin D. Power of the firm Margiotti & Casey, filed suit against ASW for a total of $80,000, to compensate the family not just for Susan’s death but also for damage to the Gnora home from noxious fumes emitted by the mills. Like virtually everyone else in the valley, the fumes were said to peel paint from walls so often, inside and out, that washing, scrubbing, and repainting needed to be done far more often than would normally be expected.

ASW was represented by Charles E. Kenworthey of the Pittsburgh firm Reed, Smith, Shaw & McClay. Kenworthey responded to the suit with two defenses:

  1. While admitting that its mills produced zinc, sulfuric acid, and “small quantities of cadmium,” and that Susan Gnora did indeed die on the 30th of October, ASW denied “each and every other allegation contained in the complaint.”
  2. Even if there was a “serious risk” to Mrs. Gnora and her family, said ASW, it was they who “voluntarily assumed that risk.”

Power and the Gnora family, as is routine in such cases, received from Kenworthey a set of interrogatories, questions from one party to the other that help determine essential facts of the case and which facts would be presented at trial. In the Gnora case, more than 30 interrogatories were to be answered by Power and his clients.

Imagine, if you would, you’re an uneducated laborer from Slovenia working in dangerous conditions at a mill, that you speak little English, that you’ve just lost your wife of 41 years, and that you’re faced with helping your lawyer answer dozens of questions along the lines of:

  • “What was the date of each other illness or physical injury of decedent during the ten years preceding her death?”
  • “How many of such trees and shrubs [on the property] are claimed to have been damaged or destroyed by defendant’s negligence?”
  • “For each such repair job [to the house] give the nature of the work done, the materials used, the cost including materials, labor and any other charges, and the name and address of the person to whom the cost was paid.”

A follow-up interrogatory asks for receipts for all of those those repairs.

Intimidating.

The Gnoras put their trust into Power’s hands. Whether he served that trust effectively has been debated since that time, but I suspect he slammed into US Steel’s wall of nearly inexhaustible funds and believed, at settlement, that he had gained for his clients the most he could reasonably expect at that time and under those circumstances. The settlement today seems a pittance.

  • Claim amount: $80,000 ($852,312 in today’s dollars)
  • Settlement received: $5,000 ($53,270 in today’s dollars)
  • Average cost of a TV in 1949: $500
  • Payment breakdown in 1949 and 2019 figures:

US Steel — 1
Gnora Family — 0

Full List of Donora Smog Victims

After extensive research, I am proud to announce the complete list of victims of the Donora smog and their ages, in alphabetical order by last name and with the correct spelling for each. I don’t expect anything here to change from now until my book on the smog publishes.

  • Ivan Ceh, 69
  • Barbara Chinchar, 55
  • Taylor Circle, 81
  • John Cunningham, 63
  • Bernardo Di Sanza, 67
  • Michael Dorincz, 84
  • William Gardner, 66
  • Susan Gnora, 62
  • Milton Elmer Hall, 52
  • Emma Hobbs, 55
  • Ignace Hollowiti, 64
  • George Hvizdak, 52
  • Jane (Jeanie) L. Kirkwood, 67
  • Marcel Kraska, 65
  • Andrew Odelga, 69
  • Ida Orr, 58
  • Thomas Amos Short, 81
  • Peter Paul Starcovich, 67
  • Perry Stevens, 55
  • Sawka Trubolis, 65
  • John West, 51

Donora Death Fog: Clean Air and the Tragedy of a Pennsylvania Mill Town

That’s the working title of the book I’m currently working on for The University of Pittsburgh Press. A nonfiction work, the book will tell for the first time the complete and accurate story of residents of a small steel-mill town who endured a smog tragedy in 1948, an event that left 20 people dead and led directly to the nation’s first Clean Air Act.

The book will put a kind of historical wrapper around the event so that readers can gain a fuller picture of why residents reacted to the smog the way they did.

I blog here about Donora and related topics. Once in a while I’ll also post something on a more personal note.

If you have memories of Donora and the smog or of loved ones working at the mills, I would love to hear from you. Either email me at andymcpheeauthor@gmail.com or use the Contact link at the top of the page.

Donora, London, and the Politics of Smog

After the smog cleared out of the Mon valley that deadly October 1948, after Dr. William Rongaus’s pleas for people to leave town went unheeded, after nearly 6,000 area residents had been sickened and 20 people had perished during the smog or in the immediate aftermath, a 25-person team from the nation’s Public Health Service (PHS) arrived in Donora to “find out precisely what caused the deaths and to establish ways and means of preventing future tragedies of this kind.”

Under the direction of James G. Townsend, MD, head of the PHS’s Division of Industrial Health, the team of doctors, nurses, veterinarians, medical technicians, chemists, engineers, statisticians, sanitarians, housing inspectors, and weather technicians surveyed the land and air and interviewed survivors, town officials, area physicians, officials of the steel and zinc mills, and many others. They conducted two autopsies and took air samples from a variety of locations over a period of many days. The final report, called “Air Pollution in Donora, PA: Epidemiology of the Unusual Smog Episode of October 1948: Preliminary Report,” consisted of 173 pages of data, maps, charts, tables, and graphs.

In the end, the report blamed a combination of factors for the tragedy, including the unusual weather pattern, the overall health of the victims, and maybe, conceivably, perhaps, not outside the realm of possibility one or a combination of toxins emitted by the many smokestacks pouring forth out of Donora’s mills. Those smokestacks released soot, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, and a host of carcinogenic metals. US Steel, which owned the mills, was never overtly blamed in the report, an omission widely considered by historians to have been almost solely a political decision.

Open hearth furnaces with long row of chimneys
Open hearth furnaces with long row of chimneys

Politics likewise played a role in the Great Smog of London, when a temperature inversion in early December 1952 bottled up all the soot, particulate matter, and other toxins escaping untold numbers of coal-burning factories and coal-fired chimneys in the city, causing a catastrophe that led to the death of 12,000 people.

Much of the coal being used by Londoners at the time was called “nutty slack,” a brown dust with bits of coal. Nutty slack generated little heat while emitting highly contaminated smoke, but it was the cheapest, most widely available fuel for city-dwellers. Black coal was still being rationed, a leftover from WWII.

Coal was used in Donora as well, but it was of a finer grade than nutty slack, and so gave off less toxic fumes. In addition many homes in Donora used natural gas for heating, not coal. In any case, both tragedies involved a prolonged temperature inversion followed by political maneuvering at its worst.

Kate Winkler Dawson writes in her book, Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City, “Coal, it turned out, was one of the few thriving international industries remaining in postwar Britain—more than 250 million tons were mined domestically every year; it was a key export for the country at a time when national budgets were tight. More than seven hundred thousand workers were employed in British coal mines. Politicians weren’t ignorant of the environmental concerns of burning huge quantities of coal every year, but their hands seemed tied.”

London’s politicians reacted at first with denial that nutty slack was at fault, preferring instead to blame the weather. Minister of Housing Harold Macmillan kept insisting that simple, common fog couldn’t possibly have been the culprit. “So far as I know,” he sarcastically intoned during a meeting in the House of Commons, “no inter-departmental committee has investigated the weather conditions which cause fog; I believe they are generally well understood.”

Harold Macmillan (left) and Norman Dodds

To which his primary opponent, Norman Dodds, who worked tirelessly to prompt an investigation of the smog, replied with trademark bluntness, “Is consideration being given or will it be given to initiating a much more thorough investigation, on the lines of that conducted by the American government in 1948? Has the right honorable gentleman seen the report?”

Dodds wielded the PHS report like a broadsword, swinging at whichever Minister of Parliament stood in his way. At one point he read a portion of the PHS report to his colleagues in Parliament, and then exclaimed, “America usually does things in a bigger way than we do, but I wonder what they are thinking about 6,000 [the initial estimate] English people dying in Greater London alone.” Macmillan’s response was to slowly, over a period of months, form a committee to investigate. Ah, the politics of delay.

Like Macmillan and his cronies, Donora mill officials maintained a rigorous denial of fault, though perhaps not as contemptuously as Macmillan. They insisted that smoke coming from their mills was blameless or at least a minor inconvenience. The deaths were caused, read a statement from American Steel & Wire Co., a subsidiary of US Steel, by “an unprecedentedly heavy fog which blanketed the borough for five consecutive days.” The mills had been operating safely for nearly 50 years, how could they possibly be at fault?

To this day US Steel has not admitted fault in the Donora disaster, and most likely it never will. As for the London disaster, Macmillan remained truculent about the whole affair. His political ambitions weren’t damaged much by it. He became Britain’s Prime Minister in 1956 and resigned in 1963, a victim of the Profumo scandal.

The Profumo scandal involved Harold Macmillan’s Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, and a 19-year-old would-be model named Christine Keeler.

Just as the Donora Death Fog prompted the nation’s first clean air act, the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, so too did London’s Great Smog prompt the first clean air act in Britain, the Clean Air Act of 1956. Since that time air pollution levels in the US and UK have fallen dramatically.

Why it so often takes a tragedy to get politicians moving is beyond me. Just politics as usual, I guess.