a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Pool of memories

The infamous Donora zinc works, shown above in a photograph taken circa 1945 in Webster.

By Scott Beveridge

DONORA, Pa. – By some accounts, residents of Donora had begun to complain about a foul odor shortly after U.S. Steel Corp. opened a zinc mill in their neighborhood a century ago.
The mill superintendent, however, insisted that the air was safe to breathe, so the story goes. To prove his point, he moved his family, including an aging relative, into a mansion he had built on a hillside directly above the row of smokestacks.
Those living arrangements in 1916 didn’t last long. That same year, the company began construction of a plan of airtight, Prairie School blockhouses for its bosses on a hillside at the edge of town as far away from the mill as possible.
The plan of houses, where flowers bloomed and trees grew tall, became known as Cement City. There wasn’t a blade of grass, however, on the ground in the immediate vicinity of the mill. The hills were barren of trees, too, downwind and across the Monongahela River in the scrappy village of Webster. The vegetation was sacrificed for a top secret operation that forged metal plating with the strength to bulletproof U.S. military tanks.
The boss' stately, three-story brick mansion would be donated to Donora’s Spanish immigrant community, whose strong, young men had the right genetics to withstand the torturous heat while working beside the zinc smelters.
Donora would become infamous for a killer smog that was the impetus for the nation’s first clean air legislation in 1963. Stagnant air had trapped the mill's pollution in the deep valley town for three days in late October 1948. Twenty people died gasping for air and hundreds were sickened by the fumes, before rain moved in and allowed the pollution to dissipate. The event prompted physicians to publicly link air pollution to poor health for the first time.
Also in the 1960s, the Donora Spanish Club was home to the town’s only outdoor, exclusive swimming pool. My family, and our white Anglo-Saxon Protestant relatives, were proud to wear Spanish Club patches on our bathing suits. While I don’t remember anyone saying it out loud, the club had an unwritten rule then that blacks were not allowed in the pool.

Racism had nothing to do with keeping the water clean. I suffered many reoccurring inner-ear infections from spending too much time scavenger hunting on the bottom of the deep end of the pool.
Still, it was a safer alternative to swimming in the filthy, dead Monongahela. And the club’s bartender provided my father with beer on Sundays at a time when state law prohibited public bars from opening on the Sabbath.

Today, four decades after the mill shut down for good, there is a lush jungle on the Webster hillside. The river runs much cleaner now that the company, and many others like it that once dotted the region’s landscape, no longer dump acid byproducts directly into its water.
Somehow, the Spanish Club manages to stay open in harsh economic times in Donora. Although the big house on the hill looks badly in need of attention, the swimming pool should be open this summer. Last year, it was refreshing to see a few black children running around its lawn.

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