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.

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.

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

The Curious Case of Stanley Sawa

This post was updated Feb. 14, 2020, based on information obtained from Stanley Sawa’s son.

One of the first stories I heard about the Donora smog of 1948 concerned the football game between the Donora Dragons and the Monongahela Wildcats on Saturday October 31. Donora lost the game 27–7, a disheartening loss to be sure. As I heard it, one of Donora’s star players, left end Stanley Sawa, was called off the field by a loudspeaker announcement and told to return home immediately.

According to the story, which also appears in numerous published accounts later, Sawa ran down the hill to his home at 601 5th Street, rushed in, and asked the neighbor who greeted him, “What’s going on? Why did you make me leave the game?”

“It’s your dad,” the neighbor replied. “He’s in there with the doctor. It doesn’t look good.”

The story ends with Stanley being too late, his father having already died. A truly sad tale if it were true. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

According to a contemporaneous account in the November 1 Daily Republican, most likely written by Allen Kline, Stanley Sawa scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, after Monongahela had replaced many of its starters with second-string players.

Nowhere does the account mention any player being pulled from the game, though in a well-known article in Collier’s the following year, author Bill Davidson, who would go on to become one of the most recognized Hollywood writers of the late 1900s, announcements were in fact made. “During the game several spectators collapsed and were carried away,” Davidson wrote, “but the cases were too scattered to attract much attention. The public-address system kept announcing the names of persons who were wanted at home ‘because of an emergency.'”

A search in The Daily Republican and the Pittsburgh Press shows no mention of any Sawa in any smog-related story from 1948 to 1960. Information that has just come to light proves that Sawa, in fact, did not get called home and indeed played the entire game that Saturday, aside from times he might have been pulled out to rest.

Stanley’s son James read this post recently and told me, “I discovered another family whose son was called home during the middle of that game and whose father had passed away, but it was definitely NOT my grandfather.” Stanley’s father, Joseph Sawa, had actually died the previous year, succumbing to a heart attack on Oct. 11, 1947.

Mystery solved

However, Joseph had suffered a stroke about a year before he died. Jamie told me that his dad, Stanley, had been called home at that time, in 1947, from a football game he was playing in. Jamie told me that one day he and his dad were driving by the old high school. “I remember that my dad said, ‘I got a call in the middle of a game, that I had to go home because my dad had come home or he’d had a stroke.’ And we were driving as he was narrating this story. He’s like, ‘I’m running up these streets in my cleats, in my football uniform, to get home.'”

And so the mystery is basically solved. The curious case of Stanley Sawa seems to have been a real-life example of the children’s game Whisper Down the Lane. People concatenated two separate incidents — Joseph Sawa’s stroke in 1947 and his son having been called home from the 1948 “Donora-Monongahela Smog Bowl” to tend to his ailing father — into one story that was far more exciting but also utterly inaccurate.

But wait, we’re not finished. Was someone playing on the Donora Dragons football team that day in 1948 actually called home for a death? Although no first-string players seem to have been called home, might a second-stringer been called home and newspapers either didn’t pick it up or attributed it later to Stanley Sawa?

If you have information that would shed light on this question, please contact me.

Follow-up

Stanley Sawa, by the way, joined the Air Force after high school and served in Korea. He attended California State Teachers College, now California University of Pennsylvania, and earned a bachelor’s in education. He earned a master’s degree from Duquesne University and a principal’s certificate from UPitt. He went on to became principal of the Butler Area Junior High School, where he remained until passing away from kidney failure at age 54 on Feb. 6, 1985.

Stanley Sawa as he appeared in The Daily Republican March 25, 1956, announcing that he was starring in the play, “Time Limit,” presented by the California State Teachers College Players.

Where Did the Smog Victims Live and Die?

Now that we know who died in the Donora smog and when, let’s look at where they lived.

Except for Thomas Short, who died at Charleroi-Monessen Hospital, all victims died at home. Shortly after the smog, in early 1949, the Division of Industrial Hygiene conducted detailed studies of the event, including data about each victim. It then developed a map of victims’ homes (below) to determine whether there might have been a pattern to the deaths; there was none.

Nevertheless, knowing where each victim lived — and died — can be instructive in itself. First, the map indicates by its incompleteness how difficult gathering data must have been in those first weeks and months following the smog. Several locations of victims’ homes are inaccurately placed on the map, which apparently had been hand-drawn for this use. There is also a rather significant mapping error: the addition of a road (see arrow at bottom), a road that seems not to have ever existed.

OldPHSMapDonoraVictims

Second, the map shows how widespread the affected areas were, with victims coming from the southernmost areas including Cement City to the more northern area, near the Zinc Works. It also shows numerous victims across the river in Webster and its upper environs.

Third, and perhaps most important, looking at the midsection of the town, think of how many of those victims and their families must have known each other. They lived within blocks of one another. Most either worked at the mills or had spouses or children who did. They visited each other’s homes, enjoyed events together, came across one another almost daily as they walked up and down the hillside or along McKean Avenue, the main thoroughfare. And their deaths must have made an indelible impression on everyone who made it through the smog. I wonder even now how many residents who lived through the fog were affected by what today we call survivor guilt and who asked themselves over and over for years thereafter, Why not me?

Yes, it’s just a map of places where people died. But when you look more closely, it is so much more.

The Acceptable Boundaries of Racism in 1940s Donora

Charles Stacey, PhD, talks often of life in Donora in the late 1940s. A retired educator and superintendent of schools, Stacey now serves as a kind of living historian of the era and of the deadly smog that changed so much, both in Donora and in the nation as a whole. When you ask, Stacey also talks about the way blacks and whites interacted back then.

Dr. Charles Stacey talking with a visitor to the Donora Historical Society

“As I look back on it, race relations in Donora were strange,” he told me one day. “For instance, we went to school with black kids, played with them on the playground. They were on all the athletic teams. They were in our classes in school, and so forth. But if they went into Isaly’s Dairy Store up here, they could buy an ice cream cone, but they’d have to take it outside to eat it. They couldn’t sit down. When they went to the movies, there was a section where the black people had to sit.”

blackkidsrollerskating

Stacey is right, race relations in the town were indeed strange, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone much, apparently not even black residents. Marvin Preston, 81, remembers well how he and his friends loved to roller skate and how they could skate only on certain nights at certain roller skating rinks. “We had a skating rink up in Belle Vernon called the Piggy Wiggy,” Preston recalls. “Everybody used to go to the Piggy Wiggy.* One interesting thing about that was, there was only one night we could go, that blacks could go.”

Piggy Wiggy allowed blacks to skate on Wednesday night, Preston says; Pittsburgh on Monday, Uniontown on Friday. Black teens would just rotate around. Preston didn’t think much about the arrangement at the time, “We knew where our boundaries were,” he explains. “I had a really good life, did everything I wanted to do. We had the same places that they [whites] had, so it didn’t make any difference. I had no desire to go to any of their places.”

Many Donorans, including Preston, remember few, if any, overt racial conflicts back then. “We all got along,” says Dmitri Petro, 83, a physician who grew up in Donora and who still sees patients at his McKean Avenue office. “Black kids in my neighborhood were part of our ‘7th Street gang,'” he says, referring to a group of kids who regularly played together. “Everyone seemed to get along okay. We never had any hostility in Donora.”

No hostility perhaps, but there were certainly unspoken social canons. High school dances were, on their face, integrated, but blacks and whites knew they weren’t supposed to dance together. Preston once tested that unwritten rule. “There was one white girl,” he remembers. “I think we were sort of sweet on each other. I don’t know. Anyways, I did ask her to dance, and she said yes, and the next day everybody had a heart attack. I was called into the office. My mother told me I had lost my mind. It caused a lot of confusion, believe me.”

Although Preston wasn’t punished, the girl was. “This young lady was banned from any activity except going to school. She had to go to school, and then go directly home.”

Lesson: Get back behind those boundaries.

Only in one place, says Preston, could black and white students intermingle. “I think the only common place we had was Pete’s Poolroom.” Pete’s was a hotspot for teens with little else to do at night in the small town. It was there, in a now empty area between 4th and 5th Streets, that teens of any color or nationality could come together without fretting about whether some authority figure might suddenly barge in and bring the hammer down.

Whether the more subtle, “acceptable” racism that existed in Donora in the 1940s and 1950s was better or worse than the more overt racism so maddeningly prevalent today is not for me to say.  I will say, though, that even with the extreme diversity of nationalities present in Donora at the time, people of all shades and persuasions seem to have got along rather well, in spite of it all.

* Piggy Wiggy was a miniature golf course located on Route 906 in Belle Vernon. Robert and Barbara Tyber bought the site in 1950 and converted the course into the Riverview Skating Rink, which locals continued to call the Piggy Wiggy

Social Life in 1940s Donora

For decades during the mid-1900s a Chamber of Commerce sign at the Donora town line read, “NEXT TO YOURS THE BEST TOWN IN THE USA.” Donorans found an odd pride in being a second-best town, no matter where a visitor came from. Perhaps that was to be expected. The town didn’t originate naturally, as a place people moved to because they liked the area or as a natural outgrowth of an urban area. No, it originated because industrialists in Pittsburgh thought it would make the best spot to build steel and zinc mills.

NextToDonoraSign

Those mills attracted people from around the world. The first sale of lots in Donora occurred on August 30, 1900, a day that brought “a great rush of people” to the area, with home sales totaling $225,000 that day alone. People came from Kansas, Alabama, Ohio, and West Virginia. They came from Poland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Scotland. They were Roman Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, Pentecostal. They were hard-working, adventurous, and determined. They were proud to live in Donora and proud of where they came from, and to maintain that pride they formed vibrant social clubs.

Social clubs began forming in the United States during the mid-1800s and continued throughout the next century. Women’s clubs, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and National Consumer’s League, found their calling in working toward social change at a national level. Men’s clubs tended to focus on exercise, sportsmanship, and social development. Those clubs, like today’s country clubs, tended to attract wealthy individuals, as did the much more elite city clubs, such as the Union League Club in New York City, which catered to moneyed men in oak-walled, richly carpeted rooms lined with billiard tables, liquor cabinets, and sterling-silver cigar ashtrays. Or the even more elite South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club on Lake Conemaugh, in western Pennsylvania, a summer club for the likes of Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Clay Frick, and the club that, through gross mismanagement of a dam on the property, caused the historic Johnstown Flood of 1889, which killed more than 2,200 people.

unionleagueclubpooltable
Union League Club, NYC

Then there were the more fraternal societies, such as the Masons, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (and the Improved, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, an Elks-style organization for black Americans). All told about 5.5 million Americans belonged to one club or another by 1900.

In Donora, as in thousands of cities and towns across the country, a different kind of club emerged, a kind that focused on a sense of community, belonging, and support for local interests. Some clubs were based on religion, others on ethnic similarities. The strong ethnic diversity in Donora led to the development of a Slovak club, Rusin (Russian) club, Spanish club, Clan Grant (for Scottish men) and the Broomie-Knowe Lodge of the Daughters of Scotia (for Scottish women), as well as Sons of Italy, the German Political and Beneficial Union, the Croation Club, and St. Dominic’s Mens’ Club, a club for Roman Catholic men.

stdominicschurch

Along with those clubs, 17 churches sprang up between the town’s founding in 1901 and 1920. The town’s population by then had swollen to more than 14,000, a period of remarkable growth for such a small area. Supporting that growth were clothing stores, banks (the Mellons led the way on that front), restaurants, a movie theater, lumber mill, post office, fire and police departments, and a host of other enterprises. Donorans were a busy lot, always scheduling this activity or that and always walking up and down Donora’s famously pitched stairs to meetings, parties, and parades.

Header image: John Carson, longtime member of Donora Elks Club, at bar shortly before the club closed for good in August, 2018

Saving Donorans on a Deadly Night

Try to imagine, if you will, what it must have been like for volunteer fireman Bill Schempp and Assistant Fire Chief Russell Davis during those dark, smoggy, suffocating days and nights of late October 1948. Both men worked day and night to bring oxygen and other assistance to Donorans who had become sick from the smog.

oxygentankandmask

That Friday night, October 29, after returning home from seeing a movie with his wife, Schempp received a call from Fire Chief John Volk that he needed to bring oxygen to ailing Donorans. Schempp threw on his heavy, mustard brown turnout coat, clipped the stainless steel buckles closed, slid his feet into a pair of black rubber boots, and snugged his DFD helmet onto his head. He strapped on the oxygen tank he kept at home, the green one, labeled TO BE FILLED WITH COMPRESSED OXYGEN ONLY, and walked out the back door, onto Thompson Avenue, into the dark fog.

BillSchemppFirePracticeMay1948
Bill Schempp at a fire practice

Walking had become so difficult by then that he dropped to his hands and knees and crept through the heavy, burning fog, feeling his way from house to house. Once inside he gave oxygen to the people who needed it most. Chief Volk would radio Schempp new homes to visit, based on the calls he received at the station. Each visit lasted only a few minutes. Schempp would fit a thick rubber mask over the ailing person’s nose and mouth and turn the oxygen on for 10 or 15 seconds, delivering what he called a “shot of oxygen.” Sometimes he gave one or two shots, rarely three, over a period of five or ten minutes. Just as the person began to breathe more easily, Schempp would shut the oxygen off, remove the mask, and move to the next house, to the next person clamoring for help. There were so many people to help, he was afraid the oxygen in his tank would run out.

Assistant Fire Chief Russell Davis was also roaming Donora that night, handing out shots of oxygen. “I didn’t get to bed until Sunday,” Davis said. “This fog was so bad you couldn’t even get your car to idle. I’d take my foot off the accelerator, and—bango—the engine would stall. There just wasn’t any oxygen in the air. I don’t know how I kept breathing. I don’t know how anybody did.”

And so it was that Schempp and Davis, men who had fought fires and transported the sick and injured to local hospitals, men who had comforted those who had lost their home or loved ones, were forced to decide how much oxygen to give each of their neighbors desperate for air. They had to say over and over, No, I’m sorry. I have to go. They had to listen to critically ill people and their loved ones plead with them, begging for more oxygen, and then walk away, knowing they might never see those friends alive again.

Imagine the torment they must have felt, the guilt, the overwhelming sadness of being essentially helpless in an unfathomable tragedy that, in the end, claimed at least 19 lives over that weekend and hundreds, probably thousands, over the coming months and years.

smogvictimonstretcher
Unidentified victim being transported to an area hospital during the smog

The physicians of Donora didn’t fare much better. They, too, clamored throughout Donora, doing whatever they could to help their patients. Drs. William Rongaus, Edward Roth, Martin Hannigan, Sr, and Ralph Koehler, among others, all made house calls throughout town that weekend. They injected adrenalin into patients suffering from asthma and used whatever other medicines they carried until they, too, fell ill from the smog. Koehler had to stop visiting homes at 1:00 AM that Friday night, so sick from the fog was he. “I had to go home,” he said. “God knows I didn’t want to, but my heart gave out. I couldn’t go on any longer without some rest.” He was days away from his 49th birthday and would die from a heart attack less than ten years later.

How many victims those caring souls saved cannot be known with any certainty, but surely the number must run into the dozens, maybe hundreds. In the kind of noxious conditions Donorans found themselves that October, even momentary relief from a shot of oxygen or adrenaline might well have been enough to survive until Sunday, when rain came to break up the fog.

Imagine the pride that Schempp, Davis, Koehler, and the others must have felt when they realized that the vast majority of the people they aided had survived the weekend. They might never have bragged about it—and in fact I have found no evidence to suggest that any of them ever did—but they surely felt the kind of deep, warm gratification that can come only from saving a life. They would have felt honored to have been there to help and grateful that their skills alleviated suffering at such a perilous time. Those are the kinds of feelings the men would have carried to their dying day.

Just imagine.

Donorans, Dressings, and the Fight Against Cancer

Cancer was once a word uttered soto voce, a word so dangerous it would conjure demons and visions of the Spectre of Death. A barely-known radiologist named Marjorie B. Illig helped to change that, and the women of Donora readily jumped aboard her world-changing vision.

In 1936 Illig was serving as a field representative for the American Society for the Control of Cancer, now called the American Cancer Society. As a former radiologist Illig had seen firsthand x rays of abdomens poisoned with whitish splotches of cancerous tissue. She told her colleagues that physicians could identify early traces of cervical cancer and that, if the ASCC encouraged women to seek preventive care, millions of lives might be saved.

womensfieldarmyposter.jpg

The ASCC listened and formed an all-volunteer group called the Women’s Field Army, whose members wore khaki uniforms and whose mission focused on urging American women to seek early detection and treatment, a key part of the new-found “war on cancer.” Illig was made National Commander of the group, which succeeded beyond all measure, growing the number of people active in cancer control from 15,000 in 1935 to a million and a half by 1939.

In the 1940s, the group took on a mission to support women being treated for advanced breast cancer. Back then thousands of women, unaware or in denial of the beast growing inside them, failed to seek treatment for breast masses. At some point the cancer would break through the skin, causing painful, caustic lesions that oozed blood, pus, and the grotesque remnants of diseased tissue.

These poor patients needed dressings to cover their wounds and absorb the fetid exudates. The ASCC asked their volunteers to make cancer dressings, which they crafted from white sheets, and cancer shirts, to be used as johnnies. Many Donorans aided in the cause, among them Donora native Gladys Schempp, one of her neighbors, and their two daughters, Annie and Cathy. Gladys belonged to a women’s club that worked throughout the year to help charities. Annie still remembers the times she made cancer shirts.

“We had to sit there and take the collars off men’s white cotton shirts,” she recalls, “the collars and the cuffs and all the buttons. We had to do that on the weekend. I remember how I didn’t want to do it, but, of course I did whatever my mom and dad told me. I was young, I would have rather played than do that, but my girlfriend was there so it wasn’t terrible. We could complain together.”

Youthful laments aside, the shirts and dressings made by the women of Donora, and by women in towns all over the nation, helped to make life more bearable for tens of thousands of women, women whose cancer was so advanced that their remaining time on Earth was rapidly coming to a close.

americancancersocietylogo

The American Cancer Society continues to recognize the tremendous work that Gladys, Annie, and the many thousands of ASCC volunteers performed. “More than anything else,” says the ACS website, “it was the Women’s Field Army that moved the American Cancer Society to the forefront of voluntary health organizations.”

bluepenicon

Who Died in Donora’s Deadly Smog?

Edited 1/2/18

A granite slab lying flat on the ground marks the grave of Jeanie B. Kirkwood, a victim of the Donora smog of 1948. Everyone knew her as Jeanie, but her name was actually Jane. Jeanie was born in Wishaw, Scotland, about forty-five minutes southeast of Glasgow, to Alexander Rensick and Mary Mackie on November 11, 1880, just a few days after James A. Garfield won the U.S. presidential election. She arrived in this country in New York in 1911, moved to Donora, and worked as a practical nurse until her retirement.

Ivan Ceh came from Rijeka, a seaport city on the northeast coast of the Adriatic Sea, in what is now Croatia. He emigrated from there in 1902, eventually settling in Donora in 1903. He worked at the wire mill in town, and he died at his home, on Fifth Street, just up the hill from Saint Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church.

Both Jeanie and one Ivan Ceh died at two o’clock on the morning of October 30, 1948, the worst day of the smog. Jeanie and Ivan were the first victims of the worst smog event in U.S. history, the smog that led the way to the nation’s first clean air act. Both individuals show up in pretty much everyone’s list of victims, as do Ida Orr, John Cunningham, Andrew Odelga, and Perry Stevens.

DHSListofVictimsPlaque
List of victims (some incorrect) on a plaque in Donora

A bit of context. I’ve been immersed for the past few weeks in researching all the people usually listed as smog victims, and it has been interesting. Most newspaper accounts in late 1948 and early 1949 use 20 as the total number of victims from the smog, which began on Tuesday, October 26, and ended the following Sunday, October 31. Historians at the Donora Historical Society (DHS) have typically used the number 27 as the total count, based on a slightly longer time period for the event, a reasonable approach. I may end up, when this phase of my research is completed, with a longer time period as well, possibly even longer than the DHS timeline. For instance, I want to include Thomas Amos Short, who died from asthmatic bronchitis, a commonly listed cause of death from the smog, and whose death certificate specifically indicates “(Smog)” in the cause of death. (Below.)

thomasshortdeathcertsection

All the lists I’ve seen, though, are slightly inaccurate. Now, developing any ancestral history can be difficult, to say the least. Inconsistent spellings of names can be an issue, especially in newspapers.The Daily Republican, a newspaper in Monongahela that ceased operations in 1970, listed Marcel Karska as a victim, but the name was actually Kraska, referring to a 66-year-old Donora resident who died at 11:45 AM on the 30th. The DHS list includes one George Weisdock, but his name was actually Hvizdak, often anglicized to Weisdack. Pretty much every list includes the name William Gardner. His actual name, however, was Cardner, with a C.

Then, too, the extent of information can leave much to be desired. It seems that not everyone received a death certificate in 1948, or, if they did, it was lost or never archived. Marriage applications, census data, immigration passenger lists, and so forth, are also often inaccurate or provide inconsistent information.

Donora residents in particular pose an issue, because so many of them were immigrants whose names Americans found difficult to pronounce and, thus, to spell. Census data are filled with erroneously spelled names, owing at least in part to an oral interview process of people with thick, foreign accents.

So it is with a fair degree of caution that I provide the following lists of victims and non-victims of the death fog. To the best of my knowledge the information here is accurate as of today, January 2, 2018.

NOTE: If you have information on any of these individuals, please reach out to me at atmcphee@gmail.com. I would be most appreciative.

Victims

  1. Ivan Ceh
  2. Barbara Chinchar
  3. Taylor Circle
  4. John C. Cunningham
  5. Bernardo Di Sanza
  6. Michael Dorincz
  7. William Gardner
  8. Susan Gnora
  9. Milton Elmer Hall
  10. Emma Hobbs
  11. Ignace Hollowiti
  12. Jane (Jeanie) L. Kirkwood
  13. Marcel Kraska
  14. Andrew Odelga
  15. Ida Orr (not Ore)
  16. Thomas Amos Short
  17. Peter Starcovich
  18. Perry Stevens
  19. Sawka Trubolis
  20. John West

Commonly and Inaccurately Listed as Victims

  • Clifford E. DeVore, who died on May 5, 1949, from terminal pneumonia
  • George Weisdack, whose actual last name was Hvizdak, who died December 22, 1948, from chronic myocarditis and nontuberculous lung abscesses
  • John Poklemba, who died May 24, 1949, had become sick in the smog and never recovered
  • Mary Rozik, commonly listed as Mary Pozik, who died May 4, 1949, from hypostatic pneumonia, bronchiectasis, and cardiovascular disease, a catch-all used principally for arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis, which often occur together
  • Steve Faulchak
  • Ruth Jones
  • Alice Ward

Post updated May 6, 2019

Who Was William Donner, the Man?

There is a softness to the man’s eyes, a gentleness that belies his fierce devotion to honesty in business. His mouth rests in a slight smile, as if at his young age he has no worries at all. That man, William Henry Donner, possessed one of the sharpest business minds of the early 1900s.

YoungWilliamDonner

Most people know Donner, if they know him at all, as the founder of Donora, a town with a name unlike any other in the world. They might know that Donner was connected to the Mellons —Andrew W. and Richard B. — and that he was instrumental in creating the zinc and steel mills in Donora at the turn of the 20th Century. They might not know much else.

So, who was this man, the man who nearly single-handedly took some rocky land next to the Monongahela River and brought into being an entire town that supplied steel for the Golden Gate Bridge and nails, steel rods, and wire fencing used throughout the nation?

Born on May 21, 1864, to a German father and British mother, Donner grew up in heady times for the nation. The Civil War had been going on for more than four years and wouldn’t end for another year, when Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1965. Donner’s family made their home in Columbus, Ohio, in a modest brick house in what is now the Topiary Park area, where Donner lived until he moved to Monessen at age 33. Donner left high school before the end of his junior year to work at his father’s flour mill, which had just lost its supervisor. Donner learned how to judge the quality of wheat and, more important, how to buy and sell it. The flour mill served as Donner’s apprenticeship, and he proved an astute young businessman.

From the beginning, with only an exception or two of minor, learn-from-it mistakes, Donner was able to identify the true value of a product or property and then negotiate a fair and reasonable price. Although there were times when he took advantage of a seller, he otherwise sought fairness in the final bargain. He moved quickly and decisively whenever he was being treated unfairly by a competitor to rebalance the relationship. Donner was not a man to be trifled with or tricked. Once, when he was managing his father’s flour mill, Donner learned that his competitor had been giving some, but not all, of its customers a secret rebate on every barrel of flour they bought each month. Donner and the competitor had previously reached “an understanding, a gentleman’s agreement,” Donner said, “on the price of flour delivered to the grocers and bakers. I adhered strictly to those prices and supposed he did the same.”

When Donner learned that his competitor was in fact not adhering to those prices, he became infuriated. “I had been stupid, and my pride had been hurt.” He immediately slashed his prices and began telling grocers and bakers in the city that his competitor had been fleecing them. Then he confronted the competitor himself. “Since you have given private rebates,” Donner scolded, “I want you to understand that we intend to sell fifty percent of the flour sold in Columbus and will continue [to offer] low prices until we secure that percentage.” The competitor fumed but eventually brought his prices in line with Donner’s, and within a few months Donner’s mill was serving about half the Columbus market, just as he had promised.

Donner’s drive for fairness, coupled with his knack for mathematics, came in handy when he built a tin mill in Monessen in 1897 and, later, steel, wire, and zinc mills in Donora, which he built and managed under the guidance of Andrew Mellon. He studied the area deeply, built lasting relationships with landowners, hired like-minded contractors to construct the mills as well as homes for the workers, and always sought to pay a fair price for good work. The mills, eventually bought by U.S. Steel, became a successful and profitable operation, providing steel and wire for the nation’s growing infrastructure.

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Donner never forgot where he came from, that unassuming brick house in Columbus, and in later life became an active philanthropist. After losing a son to lung cancer in 1929 Donner created the International Cancer Research Foundation, which morphed into the William H. Donner Foundation and continues to provide grants and support for a number of human rights organizations. He was also an important benefactor for his college alma mater, Hanover College, and was founder of the Donner Canadian Foundation, which focuses on public policy initiatives. The foundation each year awards the Donner Prize for the best book on pubic policy by a Canadian.

Donner died in Montreal on November 3, 1953, at age 90, with that gentle smile still intact.

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A Lesson in Negotiating

Donora, Pennsylvania, would likely not exist today if town founder William H. Donner hadn’t finally persuaded Margaret Heslep, a surprisingly crafty negotiator, to sell her land.

MapofOriginalHeslepFarm

Margaret, widowed since 1872, owned a 140-acre farm on the Monongahela River in southwest Pennsylvania, where Donner, along with his partners, Andrew and Richard Mellon, wanted to build several steel mills. Donner knew that the Heslep property was critical to those plans, so he asked James McKean, who represented the Mellons and lived in Donora, “Would you have any objection to my meeting with Mrs. Heslep about the property?”

“Certainly not,” McKean said with a knowing laugh, “go ahead.” McKean had already been down that same road, unsuccessfully.

Over the coming days and weeks Donner met with Mrs. Heslep numerous times to ask about purchasing her land. Each time he received a polite but firm, “No.”

“She was always very pleasant to me,” Donner wrote in his autobiography, “and invited me on several occasions to stay for meals.” Mrs. Heslep told him more than once, “Mr. Donner, I’m sorry to have to keep saying ‘no’ to you.”

Persistence was unquestionably the 35-year-old Donner’s most important characteristic. Why should this obstacle, a pleasant, honest woman saying no, keep him from achieving his goal?

“You’re wasting  your time,” McKean told him. Andrew Mellon agreed, saying, “It’s hopeless.”

Maybe, thought Donner, but still….

The breakthrough came during one of Donner’s visits when he asked Mrs. Heslep about buying some of the drift coal located on her property. “I won’t sell any coal,” she told him. “It is all in the hill.”

Donner suddenly realized that her repeated denials might be covering up a deeper wish to protect her coal. “Perhaps her husband had told her to hold onto it,” Donner speculated. From his land surveys Donner knew that the Heslep coal deposits, as well as Mrs. Heslep’s home and gardens, occupied about 70 acres. So he asked, “Might you be willing to sell all of your property except for those 70 acres?”

“You might make an offer,” the widow responded.

Donner knew right then the land would be his. “I will pay you $375 per acre,” he said, an amount totaling $26,250, equivalent to nearly $700,000 today. She turned him down.

“You paid $400 an acre for the Allen property,” she told him.

“Yes, we did,” Donner admitted, “but Mr. Allen’s property was the largest in the area.”

Again, she refused. “I positively will not sell at that price.” Her price was $500 per acre, she insisted, “and not one cent less!”

Heslep’s daughter decided at that point to ask Donner to stay for dinner, an offer to which he readily agreed. After what must have been a pleasant but rather tense meal, Donner told Mrs. Heslep that he would accept her price.

But Mrs. Heslep, a cool negotiator, wasn’t finished. She insisted on a stipulation. “Mr. Donner,” she said, “I would ask that you bring me $500 in gold by noon tomorrow. This shall bind our agreement.”

The next morning Donner placed an envelope of gold coins worth $500 on her dining room table. Astonished, Mrs. Heslep threw up her hands and said, “Take it away! I could never sleep with that much money in the house!”

Finally content with the sale but not yet finished negotiating, Mrs. Heslep told Donner he needed to give her one last item. “Mrs. Heslep told me,” said Donner, “that according to some custom, the details of which I cannot recall, I should also give her silk for a dress.”

The next day Donner had a friend purchase a “suitable” piece of black silk, which he immediately presented to Mrs. Heslep at her home. “She was delighted,” Donner said, and a sales agreement was finally signed.

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When Donner notified the Mellons that he had succeeded in purchasing the Heslep property, they were stunned. Richard Mellon laughed, and told Donner, “I should like to have a phrenologist examine your skull. That lump for perseverance must be immense!”

Q: How much were Donner and the Mellons prepared to pay Heslep for her land?

A: Per Donner, “Her property was so important to our plans that we would have paid $2,000 per acre if necessary.”

________________

Post script

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By Kathi Lynn King

That marvelous negotiator, Margaret Heslep, who died in 1907, is buried alongside her husband, in a distinctive gravesite in Monongahela Cemetery.

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5 Tips for Building Your Own Town

If you’ve ever wanted to start your own town, there may be no better formula for it than the one William H. Donner used to start Donora at the turn of the 20th Century. Donner was a colleague of banking and industrial magnate Andrew Mellon, and they had decided to build a series of steel mills south of Pittsburgh. Donner found in some land along the Monongahela River the perfect spot to create a town. Let’s take a look at how he did it.

#1 Find the right location

Donner had been operating a tin mill in Monessen, Pennsylvania, not far from the area that would become Donora. Donora lies inside a horseshoe-shaped curve in the “Mon” about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. Donner decided that the area met all, or at least most, of his criteria for the new mills.

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The land along the river was flat and already being served by a railway. It was large enough to accommodate the mills he planned to build. The river could serve as a north–south highway for his products, and there was enough undeveloped land in the area to house all the workers he would need.

#2 Buy as much land as you can

Donner purchased land from many early settlers, including the large Castner property. Peter Castner, usually considered the first settler in the area, had moved from his home in Berks County and had set down roots along the banks of the Mon in the summer of 1775, a time of enormous upheaval in the nation. After the war Pennsylvania officials granted Castner, a war veteran, a swath of land to call his own. That area, and an adjoining property belonging at one point to a Nathan Hammon, would ultimately become home to several of Donner’s steel and zinc plants.

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Above photo from From Donora (Images of America), by Charles E. Stacey, Brian Charlton, and David Lonich

#3 Build it, so they will come

You can’t have a town without people, of which Donner would need about 5,000 to run the mills he and Mellon had decided to build. Donner and company offered home lots for sale starting August 30, 1900. From that to the end of 1902, about 1,000 buildings had been erected and 6,000 people had moved in.

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A number of those residents came from, of all places, Cherryvale, Kansas, home of Francis “Frank” Bellamy (right), a Cherryvale High School student who famously penned the Pledge of Allegiance as an entry in a national student contest in 1892. Cherryvale is located in the mineral-rich area known as the Tri-State Mining District, which had been a key source of zinc and other minerals since the late 1870s. The area had attracted many skilled workers from Spain.

A significant number of those Spanish laborers, hearing about the mills to be built in southwest Pennsylvania, decided to move there and build a new life for themselves. The Donora mills would ultimately be peopled by workers from Spain, Poland, Italy, Hungary, Germany, Austria, and many other nations.

#4 Don’t forget infrastructure needs

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If you’re going to have people live in your town, you’re going to need housing for them, and to build houses, you need lumber. One of the first businesses in Donora was the Donora Lumber Company, founded by Charles Potter of nearby Charleroi and several businessmen from Pittsburgh. Wood from the company was used not only to build Donora houses but, later, to build the World Trade Center, the famed wooden roller coaster, Thunderbolt, in Pittsburgh, and the outfield fence for Three Rivers Stadium, former home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Donora Lumber Company continued to supply lumber until its closure on January 9, 2016, after more than 115 years in business.

#5 Oh, and you need a name

Choosing a unique, memorable name for your town can make or break the town’s success. There are, for instance, 41 Springfields in the U.S. Forty-two if you count Homer Simpson’s town. There are 24 Franklins, 24 Washingtons, and 23 Chesters.

Boring.

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When Donner and Mellon were deciding on a name for Donora, they considered calling it Meldon, but eventually opted against it. (The name lives on, though, as one of the main streets in Donora.) They finally decided to combine Donner’s last name with the first name of Mellon’s wife Nora (right). Hence, Donora. And unique? There is no other town anywhere in the world, as far as I can determine, with the name Donora.

As for me, I’ve decided that when I create my own town, I’m going to name it Andyville. Or maybe McPheesterton. Or Andydandytown.

I guess I had better keep working on it.

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Is Andrew Posey Buried Here?

You can see the gravesite from the Stan “The Man” Musial Bridge, but you would find it unremarkable. It is an odd gravesite, sitting as it does on a patch of grass in the middle of a dirt parking area next to a welding company in an industrial park on the banks of the Monongahela River.

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A yellow-brick wall about 3 feet high and 20 feet long forms the back of the grave, and at each corner is a pair of brick cornerstones. Steel tubes connect the structures. A small American flag stands next to a concrete cross with a bronze plate bearing the words, “Andrew Posey.”

There are no dates, no markings of relatives buried next to him, just the one cross that bears his name. Posey had been one of tens of thousands of men who returned home from Europe after World War I. He found work as a ladle stopper in the open hearth plant in Donora, which is where the 21-year-old veteran died.

Ladle stoppers were responsible for ensuring that the exit for a ladle — some ladles weighed 100 tons or more — was clear, so steel could pour out. On January 8, 1920, Posey had jumped, or perhaps fallen, into an empty ladle to clear a blocked exit when an explosion blasted out the back of the ladle’s furnace. The blast poured thousands of pounds of 3,000-degree molten steel into the ladle, incinerating the poor man into mist.

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The family was understandably angry at the mill and pushed to have their loved one’s remains memorialized in some way, but because there were no remains, plant officials decided to transport the entire ladle, complete with the now-solid steel, and bury it down the road. That ladle is buried at the Posey gravesite. Quite a story.

But here’s the thing. The story is a myth.

Yes, Andrew Posey was killed in an explosion, but to think that any plant supervisor at that time would have done anything to memorialize one of its workers is to greatly overestimate the level of concern management expressed about its workers. Management viewed its workers as essentially chattel back then, knowing that if a mill worker was injured or killed on the job, another able-bodied man (women didn’t do such work) was ready to take his place. Workers who suffered burns, fractures, or other injuries were expected to go right back to work, sometimes the same day. And the workers didn’t put up a fight; they knew that their and their family’s survival required that they keep working, no matter what.

Donora plants sometimes kept notes on workers, but not always. If a plant kept any notes, they tended to be scant and barely indicative of the worker’s impact on the plant’s success. James McKenzie, PhD, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of North Dakota, found his father’s entire 48-year work history in the Donora mills notated in a few lines, including these:

  • 12-3-28 open hearth laborer
  • 11-2-58 combustion chemist
  • Wife sick
  • Vacation
  • Replace Louis Miller
  • 5-2-77 last day of work

No, the management of the Donora steel mills in 1920 most likely would not have cared enough about Andrew Posey to take a furnace offline, remove a 100-ton ladle, cart it a half-mile down the road, and bury it. They might have, and most probably did, tell the family that they had buried it, and then given the “event” some hoopla, just to get the Posey relatives off their back. They also probably told workers that day not to say anything about the accident. Unfortunately no solid evidence is available of exactly what steps the mill took.

So, what’s the truth?

A study by the Mon Valley Progress Council in 1995 indicated that the earth beneath Posey’s gravesite is just dirt, nothing more. “No slab or ingot of steel is located within the area of our investigation,” the report noted.

Even though Andrew Posey is, in all probability, not buried under that square of grass and weeds, his memorial still demands attention. It symbolizes, in an antithetical way, the continuing issues faced by workers across the nation. Don’t people deserve a wage high enough to at least qualify for a poverty-level life? Don’t they deserve a safe work environment? Don’t they deserve a chance to fight for their rights when management becomes greedy?

I would argue that unquestionably they need all those things, and I believe Mr. Posey and his family would argue that as well.

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