Remembering the Deadly Donora Smog

Kari Lydersen

Air pollution from the Donora Zinc Works covered the town for two days, killing 20 and hospitalizing thousands—eventually helping produce the first regulations to restrict air pollution.

DONO­RA, PA — Six­ty-six years ago this week, a thick nox­ious cloud enveloped Dono­ra, a steel mill town on a lush hill­side above the Monon­ga­hela Riv­er 37 miles south of Pitts­burgh. Res­i­dents were used to pol­lu­tion from the town’s clus­ter of indus­tries that formed the bedrock of the region’s econ­o­my mak­ing steel, wire and nails.

They were used to plumes of smoke bil­low­ing into the sky and see­ing every­thing cov­ered in red dust from the iron ore used to make steel, as Charles Stacey, a long-time res­i­dent, teacher and local his­to­ri­an, told In These Times on a vis­it in June. 

Stacey grew up by the riv­er across from the Dono­ra Zinc Works, where no veg­e­ta­tion grew because of the fumes.

I didn’t see grass until I was 50,” he says. Air pol­lu­tion was a way of life in Dono­ra. You put your hand out and you couldn’t see the tip of your fin­gers. You could trip off a curb because you couldn’t see. But usu­al­ly by lunchtime, the wind would blow it away.”

On Octo­ber 26, 1948, a Tues­day, the cloud did not move by lunchtime or by evening. The cloud didn’t lift the next day, or the next. The annu­al Hal­loween parade was held on Fri­day as usu­al, but you couldn’t see across the street. Peo­ple strug­gled to breathe dur­ing the high school foot­ball game on Saturday.

Stacey, who was 16 at the time, described valiant fire­fight­ers going house to house check­ing on res­i­dents, car­ry­ing oxy­gen tanks, crawl­ing and feel­ing their way along the streets they had grown up on because walk­ing made it too dif­fi­cult to see and breathe.

Inves­ti­ga­tions would lat­er con­firm that a tem­per­a­ture inver­sion, a lay­er of warm air hov­er­ing above the val­ley, was pre­vent­ing the dis­si­pa­tion of air pol­lu­tion from the mills — specif­i­cal­ly from Dono­ra Zinc Works, which pro­duced a tox­ic blend of sul­fu­ric acid, nitro­gen diox­ide, flu­o­ride and oth­er compounds.

Offi­cials at U.S. Steel Corp., own­er of the mills and the zinc works, main­tained that the sit­u­a­tion was not caused by their oper­a­tions. For sev­er­al days, the com­pa­ny refused to shut down despite pub­lic pleas to do so. The zinc works final­ly halt­ed oper­a­tions on Sun­day. After a rain fell soon after­wards, the air began to clear.

At least 20 deaths were attrib­uted to the pol­lu­tion, and up to 7,000 peo­ple fell ill or were hos­pi­tal­ized. The total death toll could be pegged at more than 70, accord­ing to some reports, by com­par­ing nor­mal mor­tal­i­ty rates with rates in the month fol­low­ing. The inci­dent became known as the Dono­ra Smog.

It took a while for the under­tak­ers to bury all the peo­ple — we didn’t even have enough under­tak­ers,” Stacey said.

Bod­ies were stored in the Dono­ra Hotel, one of the town’s his­toric struc­tures still stand­ing on the same road as the Dono­ra Smog Muse­um, opened in 2009 to keep alive the mem­o­ry and lessons of the smog and to cel­e­brate Donora’s steely persistence.

The smog was a wake­up call about the dan­gers of indus­tri­al air pol­lu­tion. It sparked state inves­ti­ga­tion and leg­is­la­tion and also con­tributed to the first fed­er­al air pol­lu­tion law in 1955 and the sign­ing of the Clean Air Act in 1970.

The smog became the sub­ject of nation­al out­rage and media atten­tion. But Stacey not­ed that in Dono­ra, many were reluc­tant to point their fin­gers at the steel and zinc works, which employed about 5,000 of the town’s 13,000 inhabitants. 

Even after the smog, there were peo­ple unwill­ing to admit the mills had any­thing to do with it,” said Stacey. They thought if the mills were blamed, they would shut down and Dono­ra would lose its pros­per­i­ty. Peo­ple want­ed to put this behind them and go back to their jobs.”

About 100 res­i­dents filed law­suits against U.S. Steel, which were set­tled for a total of $256,000 in 1951. The com­pa­ny nev­er admit­ted any respon­si­bil­i­ty for the incident.

Donora’s mills and zinc works ulti­mate­ly did close in the 1950s and 1960s, ear­ly casu­al­ties of the decline of the U.S. steel indus­try that swept the nation by the 1980s.

It’s been all down­hill ever since,” said Stacey. Despite the envi­ron­men­tal and health effects of the indus­try, he talked with nos­tal­gia about the glo­ry days when indus­try was humming.

When Dono­ra was at its peak, Fri­day was pay­day and the streets were jammed with peo­ple.” The local Mel­lon bank, he said, had the high­est per capi­ta sav­ings of any Mel­lon branch in the U.S. It was a hard time but a pros­per­ous time.”

The mill was staffed by scores of Euro­pean immi­grants, par­tic­u­lar­ly Irish­men and Scots. Stacey’s moth­er was born in Scotland’s old coun­try.” The zinc works mean­while was known for Span­ish work­ers. And there was also a large African Amer­i­can work­force and community.

It was a great place to grow up, you learned how to get along with every­one,” remem­bered Stacey, who left Dono­ra for col­lege and then came back to serve as an Eng­lish and his­to­ry teacher, schools super­in­ten­dent and now a mem­ber of the Dono­ra Smog Muse­um committee.

There was how­ev­er a dis­tinct hier­ar­chy among eth­nic­i­ties. Scotch and Irish immi­grants were high­er-paid machin­ists and man­agers, while immi­grants from south­ern and east­ern Europe worked the dirt­i­er, low­er-pay­ing jobs. The man­agers lived in Cement City,” rows of rel­a­tive­ly spa­cious and com­fort­able con­crete homes up on the hill­side, while labor­ers lived in wood­en hous­es clos­er to the belch­ing machinery.

Like many indus­tri­al cities across the heart­land, the mills and zinc works promised a sta­ble if gru­el­ing future for local families.

It used to be you could grad­u­ate from high school on Fri­day night, go to the mill on Sat­ur­day, get a job and work there for 40 years,” Stacey said. This was a town that had a work eth­ic, peo­ple knew they had to work hard to feed and clothe their families.”

Dono­ra was known nation­wide for its ath­letes – a num­ber of base­ball, bas­ket­ball and foot­ball stars includ­ing Stan Musial and Ken Grif­fey who are proud­ly cel­e­brat­ed in the muse­um. The cul­ture cul­ti­vat­ed by the steel mills was con­ducive to devel­op­ing top ath­letes, Stacey and many oth­ers believe. This cul­ture also man­i­fest­ed itself in oth­er ways, like the bloody brawls at the local bar called the Buck­et of Blood. If you were a loud­mouth you might need to fight your way out,” said Stacey, who grew up half a block away from the tav­ern and added that a day didn’t go by you didn’t see the police or an ambu­lance outside.”

In a 1951 homage to Dono­ra, res­i­dent John P. Moon” Clark wrote: Dono­ra is a town san­guine and singing with the cus­toms and health and rough strength of a peo­ple who came from many dif­fer­ent coun­tries to live and work and grow togeth­er in a price­less ami­ty and tru­ly Amer­i­can fashion.”

Donora’s Amer­i­can Steel and Wire Works pro­duced wire that was used for projects around the coun­try includ­ing the Gold­en Gate Bridge. And it pro­duced nails used nation­wide, with a zinc coat­ing so they didn’t rust. If you’ve nev­er been in the nail mill, you’re lucky,” said Stacey. It was the nois­i­est place on the face of the earth.”

Stacey described the gris­ly 1920 death of World War I vet­er­an Andrew Posey. His job was to go in the big steel vats and chip off the residue. One day the vat let loose and inun­dat­ed him with molten steel.”

Posey was buried encased in that steel, Stacey said. But rumor has it that dur­ing World War II when demand for steel was espe­cial­ly high, the lump was dug up and put back into the furnace.

So Andrew Posey can say he served in the first and sec­ond World Wars,” Stacey said, offer­ing what he describes as Donora’s trade­mark black humor. That shows what a tough town it was.”

The sto­ry of Posey’s bur­ial in a slab of steel has been debunked, but nonethe­less his death and the myth were telling sym­bols of the seem­ing dis­pos­abil­i­ty of steelworkers.

Stacey said the com­pa­ny grant­ed Posey’s fam­i­ly a whop­ping $14 a month after his death.”

Elab­o­rat­ing on the company’s treat­ment of work­ers, he point­ed to a pho­to in the Dono­ra muse­um of a small square build­ing and said, That was the mill hos­pi­tal – for 5,000 peo­ple – just to show you how well the mill treat­ed you.” He went on to talk about a work­er splashed by caus­tic chem­i­cals in the face – Make sure you come back tomor­row,” Stacey said he was told.

Stacey think con­di­tions got bet­ter in the mills thanks to the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers union.

Dono­ra was a very anti-union town that became a strong union town over time,” in large part because of the company’s appar­ent dis­re­gard for the well-being of work­ers, and the union’s advo­ca­cy, said Stacey, who describes him­self as a big union person.”

I attribute the country’s pros­per­i­ty post-World War II to two things: The GI Bill and the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act,” Stacey says.

Today this pros­per­i­ty has fad­ed in Dono­ra, which has the left behind” feel­ing of many rust belt towns.

While there is still some heavy indus­try in the area, the U.S. Steel works and oth­er bygone oper­a­tions are only vis­i­ble as rem­nants and ruins. The social club and park that once host­ed pic­nics for thou­sands of steel­work­ers are over­grown, and the infa­mous Buck­et of Blood is long gone. Many store­fronts on Donora’s quaint main street are shut­tered and vacant; few res­i­dents are vis­i­ble even on a beau­ti­ful sum­mer afternoon.

But at the Dono­ra Smog Muse­um, the his­to­ry and cul­ture of Dono­ra feel very much alive. And while the dead­ly smog is what made Dono­ra most famous, the hard-work­ing res­i­dents and the vibrant soci­ety they cre­at­ed are the real lega­cy, as Stacey tells it. This lega­cy con­tin­ues among the fam­i­lies who still call Dono­ra home, and in the count­less struc­tures from coast to coast built with the fruits of Donora’s labor.

This isn’t the same town it used to be,” Stacey said. But still, Dono­ra is the only town in the coun­try with that name. This is the cen­ter of the universe.” 

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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