a newspaper man adjusts his pen

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)

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