Cuddled along a bend in the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania, across from the industrial town of Donora, Webster once boasted a population of about two thousand. Anyone traveling up the Mon around the turn of the twentieth century would have seen a charming village at the base of steep farmland rising over well-kept homes. A coal tipple stood along the river as well, ready to plunk its cargo into awaiting train cars. “Yards were separated by white picket fences,” wrote journalist Scott Beveridge, “and most contained lush orchards and flower and vegetable gardens.”
Named for Daniel Webster, the renowned orator and senator, Webster was large enough to have its own bank, train station, and post office building. There was also a sizable flour mill at the corner of Third Street and Webster Hollow Road. The Webster Roller Flour Mill produced King Midas flour and “feed, hay, and grain of all kinds,” with “fancy Minnesota flour a specialty.” Folks from Pittsburgh and the surrounding area would often travel to Webster for weekend getaways. They would stay at one of the town’s four hotels, including one at the corner of Second Street and Webster Hollow Road, which had a classy restaurant complete with spindle-back chairs, smooth white tablecloths, and a central fireplace below a doily-covered mantle.
Civil War hero John Vogel owned the Union Hotel, along with about a dozen beautiful buildings in town. The town’s quaint shops, respected hotels, and stately mansions made Webster one of the area’s “destination towns” before that term was ever invented.
And then came 1915.
That was the year the Donora Zinc Works was built and began producing zinc, in the process sending thick plumes of toxic gases and particulate matter into the air—all day, every day. Prevailing winds tended to blow the smoke eastward over Webster. The toxins decimated the Webster hillside, burned the paint off houses, and left the orchards and gardens dust-bound.
The wealthiest residents left first. “Webster’s riverboat captains,” said Beveridge, a long-time Webster resident, “having witnessed how these giant mills had damaged other farms along their travels, immediately put their estates on the market. Anyone else with enough money soon followed their lead.”
Webster was finished.
After the zinc mill closed in 1956 and the toxins no longer blew over Webster, the vegetation came back. The hillside today is covered in forests and fields, but the town’s population has never recovered. Seventy-eight people now call Webster home, with that number declining year over year.
When people discuss the tragedy of the Donora Death Fog in 1948, they shouldn’t forget the more than a century-long tragedy of little Webster.