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)