a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Picksburgh grub

Nowhere baby will you find food like this except in Pittsburgh, Pa. Looks like I'm off to Bloomfield for a Polish platter.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The seedy side of town

Welcome to nowhere, Chapter 8

By Scott Beveridge

Once we worked up the nerve, my brothers and I took the quarter-mile hike to the bad end of Webster to find the baseball field. Everybody in town believed that the better families lived around us, to the north of the Donora-Webster Bridge, and that the elite owned the few rows of houses up on the hill. So we were on a "dangerous" adventure in June 1962 to find the rocky ballpark beside a junkyard and railroad tracks, where trains carted coal from the mines to the steel mills.

As we neared our destination, two girls who were close to our ages but younger, probably 5 and 4, jumped off their porch, ran into the dusty street and pulled down their britches. They marked their territory with a few turds as traffic approached, and, as quickly as they appeared, they slipped back into the creaky wooden duplex where they lived. Their prank was enough to convince me that our neighbors were right when they gossiped about the seedy side of our village along the eastern banks of the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania.

The real trouble on that end of town began at Dolfi’s corner, a concrete slab that was a hangout for delinquents with all day to waste. That sidewalk led to a three-room store in a shack with well-worn asphalt linoleum on its floors and a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the front room.
Felix Dolfi, a craggy Italian immigrant, made his living there collecting coins from the jukebox, pool table and two pinball machines, while selling children cigarettes for a nickel apiece with their penny candy. He occasionally muttered, “vaffanculo, your mamma your seester, too,” and we would all laugh.
Some days, we pretended to fight and broke our empty 12-ounce Coke bottles on purpose to get him spitting mad so we could hear him rattle off that Italian command for, “go f&#@ yourself.”

Things only got worse when a circle of girls with chips on their shoulders started hanging out with higher-class boys from the big town just up the river. The girls, who were of high school age, started a feud between a handful of guys from Webster and Monessen, a small city that had the highest crime rate per capita in the United States in the early 1970s. To scare us off our corner, the Monessen dudes made a weekly habit of pelting us with stones and quart-size bottles of beer that from a speeding blue convertible Ford Mustang. At other times, they were abusing the Webster girls in a different manner in the backseat of that car.

It was the summer of 1972. Old man Dolfi had retired by then and sold his store to Joe “Big Flea” Flemming, a pudgy steelworker from Webster. I was 15 when it became time to get even with the rich boys with a fancy sports car from Monessen. Two carloads of our friends waited for several nights in the dark alley across from the store until the Mustang made its final swing by Dolfi’s. As soon as it passed, big Joe walked to the middle of the road and fired six rounds from a black revolver at the car. We then trailed the car for five miles straight to Monessen High School, where those city boys learned a hard lesson for messing with Webster.

A photograph of the Mustang appeared the next day in the local newspaper above a cutline that suggested that the vehicle had met up with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde. Thank God no one was shot that night, but Flemming would find himself facing a weapons charge after one of the Webster girls ratted him out to Monessen police.
Dolfi’s corner became our hard-luck symbol of what happened to a one-industry town after the company vanished, leaving everyone without the guiding hands of educated executives.
Too blind to notice in 1960, we became the first links to corrode America’s rust belt with the idling of U.S. Steel Corp.’s American Steel and Wire division across the river in Donora. It was the first major steel mill in America to shut down permanently, news that came in a July 24, 1962, announcement from the corporation.
In slow order, U.S. Steel handpicked a few of the men in our neighborhoods for jobs at its mills in Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago. Many others who were overlooked for work felt betrayed by the company, while they waited patiently for the mills to reopen, as if they were part of a big joke to soften the labor union during a soft market for steel.

We were being welcomed to a place that was going nowhere in the fast lane. Webster’s fate had been sealed decades ago because it bore the brunt of the filthy smokestack pollution and the bulk of its residents had moved on to cleaner places. Faced with massive unemployment in the 1960s, it was Donora’s turn to gasp for air.


Chapter 9

(Caption: Dolfi's corner in the 1950s)

What's the big secret? Part 4

Here is an editorial from today's edition of the Observer-Reporter:

An IQ test to see a public record?

We thought we had heard every excuse in the book for denying citizen access to public records until we read the front page story on Sunday. The executive director of the Washington County Conversation District balked at giving our reporter a copy of a report because he would be too dumb to understand it.
It was only after County Commissioner Bracken Burns visited the office to explain the county’s policy on open records that the director, Gary Stokum, agreed to make a copy available to us. Burns noted that the county does not require an IQ test to view a public document.
Stokum correctly pointed out that none of our reporters is a trained geologist. Thus, he argued, there was no point in giving us the report because we couldn’t properly interpret it and might in fact misconstrue it and report on it inaccurately.
In the real world, that shouldn’t be a problem. Journalists frequently have to report on complex subjects in fields where they have no background - in science, medicine, law, even religion. In order to adequately inform the public, they have to interview competent people who have expertise in these matters. The notion that a reporter would take a technical geological study and try to interpret it in print himself is nonsense.
But the whole argument is beside the point. Public officials are not the owners of public documents, only their caretakers. The owners are the citizens - the people who pay for them - and they don’t have to satisfy the records’ guardians that they are smart enough before they can see them.
The first request to examine the estimated 40-page report that was funded by the state came from a community activist concerned about a power plant in Robinson Township and whether it can treat water from abandoned and flooded mines to cool its towers. When she went to the office, she was given just eight pages of the report and was allowed to read the rest of it only if someone stood over her.
But the government shouldn’t be allowed to control how much information citizens groups can have on the basis of how well-prepared its members are on the subject. Even if, heaven forbid, a public report is misunderstood, the agency always has the opportunity, if not the obligation, to set the matter straight. It may be a messy process, but it’s the way things should be done in a free society.
Then there was a footnote to the Conservation District story. On Tuesday, an estimate arrived in our newsroom of how much it would cost for a copy of the study. It came with the letterhead not of the agency but of a local company that does digital imaging, printing, copying and the like.
The total would be $219.23 for a total of 138 pages, counting all the bells and whistles, none of which we asked for. Most of the pages would be printed on “Williamsburg white” paper, but some others would be printed on “Mohawk color” or “Engineer white.” There are charges for “special drilling, “hand fold,” “tab typesetting” and “hand insert tabs.”
For Heaven’s sake, doesn’t the county own a copier it would let the Conservation District use? We asked for a copy of a public document, not a customized printing job. But this is an old story: Make access to public records as expensive and difficult as possible. Maybe the public will go away and leave the public agencies in peace.

UPDATE: We obtained 100 + pages of the mine water report Friday, Sept. 28, at a cost of $29.50.
It came with a fee of $25 cents per page under the terms of the Washington County policy on releasing public documents. The director of the Conservation District, which is an independent state agency housed in the county courthouse, agreed to adhere to the county policy Wednesday in a letter to the editor and publisher of the newspaper. The letter also falsely accused me of being rude and demanding to his staff. One of the things that I learned a long time ago when asking for records is the importance of pouring on the honey to clerks who hold the keys to the files.

Part 1

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What's the big secret? Part 3

In our continued effort at the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., to obtain a copy of a mine water report from the Washington County Conservation District, we were hit today with an estimate of $219.23 to reproduce the 158-page document. The bill showed costs for such things as hand folding and typesetting, which were not part of our right-to-know request.
You can view the bill here, and read the related stories at this link.
The newspaper responded to the Conservation District today in writing that the bill was unreasonable and that a simple copy from its copier would have been sufficient, at a reasonable cost, as stipulated in Pennsylvania's Open Records law.
Had the staff looked at its policy on producing such records, it might have realized that there shouldn't have been a charge for the first 10 page. The policy was written with the guiding hand of the state Department of Environmental Protection to include a fee of 15 cents for each additional copy. The price, then, would have worked out to $22.20. Stay tuned....

Part 4

Monday, September 24, 2007

What's the big secret? Part 2

Last week I posted something about the problems members of the media have faced with obtaining public records from civil servants. Before the week was out, I was met with a brand new excuse from an executive director of a government agency who didn't want to give me a copy of a feasibility study on bringing water to a new waste coal power plant being developed in Washington County, Pa. In a nutshell, the executive director of the Washington County Conservation District denied my request because he didn't think I would be able to understand the report. Here's how it went:

Gary Stokum, executive director of the conservation district office, appealed to a reporter with the Observer-Reporter to “be reasonable and use a little common sense” when he denied the newspaper a copy of the Erie Langeloth Francis mines report Friday.
“I have no idea what it costs to copy that report,” said Stokum, adding that the state Department of Environmental Protection had given him the impression that he does not have to provide copies of reports the agency generates.
Stokum said it would take a geologist to correctly interpret the report, and that it might be “misconstrued” and reported inaccurately in the newspaper if he wasn’t present to explain the document to a reporter.
“What good is it to you if you don’t understand it?” he said.
Ron Ruman, spokesman for the DEP in Harrisburg, said Friday afternoon that he also would investigate the newspaper’s complaint that it was unable to obtain a copy of the report.
Stokum’s salary is paid with taxpayer money, but he is not technically a county employee, said Washington County Commissioner J. Bracken Burns. County conservation districts are funded through a variety of sources, including money from the state Department of Agriculture.
Burns said he paid Stokum a personal visit to explain the county’s liberal open records policy Friday afternoon after becoming alerted to the difficulties people were having with getting a copy of the study.
Burns said it’s not necessary to “run an IQ test” on someone or judge their competence before making copies of public records available to residents.
Stokum then called the newspaper shortly after 3 p.m. Friday to say that the report was at a copying company and would be available to a reporter as early as Thursday.
“Well, you managed to rattle enough chains,” he said.

Part 3

(The sunshine logo belongs to the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Justine Ezarik interview

Justine Ezarik of Pittsburgh discusses her fascination with technology and that 300-page bill she received in a box for a month of calls on her iPhone. (Observer-Reporter)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bow wow

Here is one way to bark about those sloths whose dogs poop on your property. This angry resident facing dog doo cleanup duty in the 800 block of McKean Avenue in Donora, Pa., is threatening to file a complaint. Hello, this is 911 - the sewage authority is on its way.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Partying presidents

These touchy-feeling statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington appear ready to head off to a toga party where the beer flows freely while guests lose their inhibitions. The sculpture stands at the entrance to Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., a school that is currently marking Greek Week. I look for these presidents to be wearings all sorts of clothes this term because of the jokes about their embracing that have been circulating the campus. One student, on a Facebook group, is promising to dress one in a wedding gown. Read more.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

What's the big secret? Part 1

News reporters who are more than bodies in newsrooms being spoon-fed information by public officials can fill a book with stories about the troubles they have obtaining public records.
One of my favorites involves a Chartiers-Houston School District office clerk’s reaction in 1998 when I asked for the salaries of the principals at the public schools in her district in Washington County, Pa. She said she understood that the salaries were public information, except, in her opinion, they were to be kept private. My request was denied in what was then a test the print media launched into Pennsylvania's conflicting right-to-know law.
And then there was the case of police in Beaver who trailed me out of town while running a check on my driving history after I asked to see the police blotter, records that Pennsylvania’s courts have ruled should be readily available for inspection by residents. I will be writing more about that later.
My experiences were nothing when compared to what happened after Jim Parsons, an investigative reporter for WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, sought to inspect the travel expenses of officials with the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which provides grants and loans to offset the cost of a college education.
Parsons eventually got to see the documents after the station and other media owners spent $70,000 on legal bills to force PHEAA to shed some light on its books. But he was hit with a nearly $30,000 bill for the cost of making copies and the time it took PHEAA officials to black out what they didn’t want him to see in the receipts. He has not paid the bill.
PHEAA, meanwhile, incurred $400,000 in legal expenses.
The reporter uncovered abuses at the agency that left many people wondering how many kids could have been put through school had the agency been a little more responsible with its expense accounts.
Parsons told his story Saturday at a workshop on open government at the University of Pittsburgh. It was sponsored by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition.
The groups are holding such discussions across Pennsylvania while lawmakers debate three amendments to the state’s Open Records law, which is among the worst in the nation. It doesn’t even presume that all documents that are paid for with tax dollars are worthy of public scrutiny, or provide an clear definition of those that can be kept secret.
The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, which printed the postcard shown above, is collecting stories at a new blog from people who have had trouble getting a peek at records kept by their elected officials. Drop the association a note as it lobbies for stronger measures to let the sun shine on just how your tax money is being spent.

A related post.

UPDATE: PHEAA boss resigns

Friday, September 14, 2007

Dome dons raincoat

The top of the historic Washington County Courthouse in Pennsylvania is looking more like a phallic symbol these days. Workers have encased the dome in scaffolding and a plastic sheath while they restore its terracotta covering.
R.J. Friday Inc. of Pittsburgh was awarded a more than $500,000 contract to repair damages that resulted in a bad restoration job two decades ago. The dome was encased then with a rubber-based paint that has cracked over the years, allowing rain to batter and rot the roofing materials. Now, the coating must come off and be replaced with something more durable to protect the 107-year-old national landmark built by the F.J. Osterling Co. of Pittsburgh. To make matters worse for the laborers, the interior of the dome is plop full of pigeon poop that must come out. This time, the restoration contract requires that netting be placed around the dome openings for the sake of clean justice.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bad boys of Webster

Welcome to nowhere, chapter 7

By Scott Beveridge

As curious kids, we often sneaked into the abandoned two-story redbrick schoolhouse across the alley from our new home in Webster. It was a breeze to get inside because the rotten kids in the neighborhood had smashed many of the building’s windows and pried the padlock off the side door before we got there.

Inside, forgotten children’s books were scattered about the hardwood floors of the four empty classrooms. Plaster was peeling off walls that had been layered with many coats of green World War II Army surplus lead-based paint. Each night at dusk, bats circled the sky above its chimneys and, in circular formation, they dipped toward the streetlights.

When winter turned the corner, we grabbed our sleds and steered them down the snow-covered hill beside the school that was a perfect double for some of the creepy buildings in Alfred Hitchcock films. When spring turned the corner, we played hoops on the crumbling asphalt paving of the basketball court with some of the strongest kids the steelworkers produced in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The boys talked tough and played tougher, sometimes too tough.

On A hot summer afternoon in 1967, when I was a chubby 10-year-old, one of the roughest kids in our poverty-stricken village came running, out of breath, to the schoolyard to announce that a street brawl was brewing.

“The niggers are coming across the bridge. Let’s go. There’s gonna be a fight,” the boy yelled.

You were taught early in that part of the Mon Valley steel belt to put yourself above black people. There were no black kids in my grade school, or living in our neighborhood.

I didn’t like to fight, either, and was afraid of most of the kids from across the Monongahela River in Donora, regardless of their color. But on Webster’s scrappy streets, you’d get your ass kicked for sure if you didn’t stick with your kind in times of trouble. So I trotted along with the crowd, barely able to keep up with legs that were shaking with fright.

We stood our ground at the foot of the sidewalk that followed the steep ramp up to the camelback spans that supported the Donora-Webster Bridge deck. A small band of angry black kids made their way across the line that separated our towns, hoping to reclaim the stolen bicycle that started the mess. To my surprise, they took one look at us and ran home.

They obviously knew it was a bad idea look for trouble in Webster. There had been too many crosses burned on starless nights on the barren hillsides above our village.

Some of the fathers on my street even flipped the channel on their television set when a black person appeared on a show. The homes were where these lessons began, ours included.

A few years earlier, our mom, June, and her live-in mother-in-law had one of their legendary arguments after a black woman spent the afternoon at our house. Mom had taken a low-paying job as a clerk at a scrap yard five miles upriver in Monongahela, where she befriended a black coworker who labored among the discarded automobiles that were being scrapped there for steel. Mom soon invited the man’s wife over for lunch while my two brothers and I played Army on the hill out back with the black woman's two sons who were close to our own ages of 7, 5, and 3, with me in the middle.

When the yell came out from the kitchen to eat, I blurted, “The last one down the hill is a nigger.” Mom wanted to crawl under the table, and would later give me the dickens for being so stupid.

Meanwhile, Grandma Madge Sine Beveridge maintained her cool over lunch, even though she grew madder by the minute about who was at the table. She had always paraded herself as a blue-blooded Johnny Bull with ancestors from the House of Stuart of the Kingdom of England. In reality, she came from a poor hillbilly family in Mt. Morris in Greene County, Pa.

Her mother was half Indian and her father a drunken Englishman who only came around long enough to create another baby. Even so, Grandma Madge didn’t think there was a woman good enough for her oldest son and our father, Jim.

Blessed with movie-star good looks, black curly hair and deep blue eyes, Jim didn’t deserve a wife who entertained “colored people” in her kitchen, grandma protested. Moments after our company left, grandma stormed to the kitchen sink, drew out the plate that mom’s guest had used and dropped it in the trash. Mom reached into the garbage, grabbed the plate and placed it back in the sink in a show of defiance. Grandma, who was big boned and bossy as hell, took back the plate and slammed it to the floor in shards. The words got louder between the two women who often vied for control of the house.

It took many years before I first heard the word "racism" used in a sentence. But on that day in 1962, I understood the concept and knew it was wrong.

The same year, U.S. Steel Corp. announced the permanent shutdown of the mill in Donora, where just about everyone depended on the steelworkers’ paychecks for survival. While most parents scrambled to put food on the table, their kids found themselves with twice as much time to make trouble.


Chapter 8

(Captions, from the top: Our cousins from the Webster area playing King of the Hill behind our house in 1967; Grandma Madge Sine Beveridge with her oldest grandson, Skip, during Christmas of 1954. A glamor photo of our mom, June, is in the background; and Jim Beveridge on his wedding day in July 1952)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Bringing the dead to life

The city of Monessen would be dead without its zombies. Its creatures are living students, however, who are learning how to apply gory makeup and mold together robotic aliens in the style of low-budget creep movies. They study at Douglas Education Center, which was a near-extinct business school before sci-fi film icon Tom Savini joined its faculty. The award-winning special effects makeup artist from Pittsburgh attracts hundreds of students from across the United States to his school in the small city in Westmoreland County, Pa., whose economy has suffered greatly since Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. permanently idled a steel mill there in the 1980s. Today, the Douglas school is the largest employer in Monessen where goth students have replaced blue-collar workers on the sidewalks. Over the past week, they have been filming a cheap movie about the walking dead on the crusty Donora-Webster Bridge for a class project. Heads were turning in more ways than one when characters like Mike Meeker of Ohio, shown above, showed up on the set.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A railroad to disaster

Welcome to nowhere, chapter 6

By Scott Beveridge

U.S. Steel Corp. picked the wrong time to load a train in September 1960 with machinery to modernize its mill in Donora, which was employing decades-old technology in deplorable condition. Before the haul could reach the town 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, trainmen walked off their jobs at the 111-year-old Pennsylvania Railroad, crippling the nation’s transport industry for three weeks. Commuters in New York and Philadelphia were left stranded by the labor dispute that affected some 30 million people. To add insult to injury, members of the union representing workers on the Donora Southern Railroad - a U.S. Steel subsidiary that moved goods and refuse in and out of Donora - joined with 1,300 others at the company’s rail lines in Pittsburgh in a work stoppage over wages and benefits. Steel production then came to an abrupt halt in Donora, Duquesne, Clairton and Homestead because union steelworkers refused to cross the picket lines that were set up by the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen union. So the flames at blast furnaces and open-hearth furnaces were dimmed to prevent equipment damage during the strike that put 30,000 U.S. Steel employees on unpaid vacations.

Temperatures flared, however, outside the gate to the Donora mill when the company began moving goods onto the property by truck. The trainmen caused a ruckus that sent the steel-maker to Washington County Court for an injunction to prevent the striking workers from blocking the flow of traffic into the mill. The company won that battle, but, it eventually caved and gave its railroad crews raises of 14 cents an hour over two years, better pensions and vacation and holiday pay to get back to the business of making steel. Donora and its 380 acres of steel factories were another matter.

The company had seen more than its share of bad times in the borough. Its laborers there had rioted during a strike in 1919 that drew gunfire. Dynamite had been set off at the houses of scab workers the company hired during that labor dispute.
Meanwhile, nearly every house in town was held together with nails that the steelworkers smuggled in their lunch buckets out the doors of the nail factory. And then, there was the smog of October 1948 that hovered over Donora and its neighboring town of Webster for three days that killed at least 20 people, and for the first time, caused physicians to link ill health to pollution. Everyone pointed fingers at the zinc works as the cause of the disaster, a top-secret plant that produced alloys to armor American soldiers in World Wars I and II. The company finally closed that toxic plant in 1957, putting 1,000 workers on the unemployment lines. It immediately toppled the row of smokestacks at the smelters while a crowd watched from behind the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire that separated the town from the mill and Monongahela River. Some applauded when the chimneys were reduced to rubble while others mourned the loss of jobs in a town that depended solely on steel for its wealth.

The Donora Southern strike sent U.S. Steel officials over the edge. Without question, they decided that Donora was not going to receive its new technology after the Pennsylvania Railroad strike ended on Sept. 12, 1960, one whole week before the Donora Southern trainmen went back to work. Little did the Donora railroad union know that the trucks its members had prevented from crossing their picket line contained some of the new equipment that was meant to upgrade the mill. The company threw up its hands and rerouted that investment to its Cuyahoga Steel and Wire Works near Cleveland. By that time, 1,200 men had already been laid off in Donora because of a downturn in the market and the growing cost of forging steel at an obsolete mill. The company made up its mind; steel production would never resume at the two, barely smoking blast furnaces that had pumped gold for 60 years into the fancy stores lining three blocks of the borough’s downtown. U.S. Steel executives began to walk away from the boom town the company had built from a patch of farms in 1901. The borough was set firmly on a course to whither without the strong, fatherly guiding hands of the industry. But no one would know that for sure for at least another two years.


Part 2: Bad Boys of Webster Chapter 7

(Caption: What little remains today of the Donora Southern Railroad near the 99-year-old Donora-Webster Bridge)

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Dying for fresh air

Welcome to nowhere, chapter 5

By Scott Beveridge

The slip under my mother’s dress would go from white to charcoal gray by the time she walked across the Donora-Webster Bridge to her job as an office clerk in 1948. As a 19-year-old single woman in those days, June Hart was met by steady puffs of smoke from locomotives that passed under the open-grate steel bridge as they followed the rails on both sides of the Monongahela River. Towboats coughed and sputtered black plumes of smoke while pushing coal-filled barges to the many steel mills up and down the river in Southwestern Pennsylvania. And then came the grittier smokestack emissions from Donora’s steel and zinc mills that sat along the Mon at the base of the deep valley it carved into the hills.

Like most of the area's nearly 20,000 people whose lives depended on those mills, June had grown accustomed to the air because she needed a paycheck. She had to help feed her five younger siblings in a family that was still crawling out of the Great Depression. June had just blossomed into a beautiful woman after shedding 50 pounds and undergoing surgery to correct her crossed left eye. She was ready to set the world on fire. To her, the smoke meant money that would put her on her journey.

June’s parents, Howard and Iva Dail Hart, were drawn to Webster in 1943 because its housing was dirt cheap and Howard wanted to be closer to his job on the railroad in Donora. Howard’s father, Mack Kelly Hart, had been a general contractor who built much of Uniontown, the Fayette County seat, including the Union Trust Building, the city’s tallest skyscraper. Mack Kelly, whose family had been in America since Colonial times, died shortly before the stock market crashed in October 1929 and left his heirs penniless.

Luckily for Howard, he began to rise out of poverty after landing a job as a conductor on the Donora Southern Railroad pulling train pots filled with red-hot mill slag through the haze to a dump on the outskirts of town.

Nothing seemed to have been out of the ordinary on Oct. 27, 1948, when the fog thickened because the winds disappeared. And it was dead still for the next three days save for the production of wire, nails and zinc and a Friday night high school football game between Donora and Monongahela, teams that were bitter rivals. No one could see the ball that night nor tell who won the game. The local newspaper was even scooped as the smog story unfolded by Pittsburgh newspapers that couldn't ignore the fact that people in Donora and Webster were dying and filling the local hospitals to capacity. But then again, U.S. Steel Corp., in addition to owning the Donora mills, also controlled the local government as well as the headlines in the Donora "Herald-American."

There have been discrepancies as to the number of people who suffocated during that Halloween weekend. The Donora newspaper cited 20 deaths, a few of which took place in Webster as it was downwind of the zinc smelters that produced alloys strong enough to bulletproof tanks for World War II. Another source claimed the death toll climbed to 70 by taking into account the number of people who never recovered from exposure to the toxins. When the pollution was at its thickest, Iva Dail Hart tried to find fresh air in the cool, damp basement of her soot-stained Victorian in Webster. It was in that cellar that night where the gentle woman whose long fingers had comforted her children and grandchildren suffered her first heart attack, one that would contribute to her death in 1960. After the smog cleared, she and her husband joined their neighbors at secret meetings in the Webster schoolhouse to find solutions to the acidic air that, over the past four decades, had stripped the paint from their homes and the vegetation from their yards. They called themselves the Webster Society for Better Living, hired an attorney and won nonprofit status in Westmoreland County. Some of its members eventually sued U.S. Steel for damages. As the lawsuits trailed the courts, brutes from Donora crossed the bridge, rounded up some of the Webster troublemakers and beat them to a bloody pulp for opposing the mills.

The U.S. Public Health Services, meanwhile, launched an investigation into the smog, one that placed most of the blame on the weather and recommended a warning system for alerting residents about stagnant air. The mill later settled with the Webster landowners in federal court, and members of the Webster society established themselves as having been among the nation’s earliest environmentalists. Their battle later became part of the impetus for the first federal clean air laws of the 1960s.

But when November turned the corner in 1948, there was steel and zinc to produce at the company that employed technology that seemed to be out of control, almost like a second atom bomb waiting to explode. My grandfather went back to work on the railroad, too, without ever mentioning those closed-door meetings that he was attending across the Mon. But in less than 10 years, his union railroad crew would walk off the job for the third time in seven years and set the stage for the company to finally end its long, bitter relationship with Donora.


Chapter 6

(Captions, from the top: Webster resident Beanie Huhra at a parade in 1950 to celebrate the first street lights in Webster; June Hart, second from left, with her sister, Shirley, and parents, Iva Dail and Howard, on their porch in 1952; The floor at the entrance of the Donora Southern Railroad headquarters at 410 McKean Ave.; and a photo circa 1949 that was staged to illustrate how pollution from Donora's mills had stripped the vegetation from the hillsides across the river in Webster)