a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Gamble on Donora Steel

By Scott Beveridge
Part 1: A borough rises from hell’s bottoms

Greedy land speculators were quick to arrive at a new town named Donora alongside a sharp bend in the Monongahela River in 1901.

Bidders camped overnight beside stakes marking vacant lots on farmland before the property auction began there at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 10, 1901.

“A gun was fired and the rush for lots started,” local historian J. P. Clark wrote in a 1951 story about the quick rise of this gritty steel town.

Within a day of the first public sale of land, two hundred lots were sold for a grand total of more than $100,000 in anticipation of the mill that, five decades later, was linked to the nation’s deadliest air-pollution disaster. But, no one then was linking air pollution to poor health. That wouldn’t happen until late October 1948, when a mysterious fog hovered over the region and 20 people died breathing the fumes from Donora’s smokestacks.

In 1900, America was deep into its Industrial Revolution and steel, coal and smoke meant money to investors who built Donora and other towns like it in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Donora land sale was announced after Pittsburgh tycoon Richard B. Mellon purchased 230 riverfront acres there for the Union Improvement Co., an affiliate of Union Steel.

He and his brother, Andrew, had already built fortunes in coal, coke, steel and railroads. The Mellons also had a friend, coke baron Henry Clay Frick of Fayette County, who also took a chance on the once-picturesque curve in the valley known for its thick air.

Riverboat captains had already named this stretch of the Mon River “Hell’s Bottoms” because morning fogs limited their view from the pilot’s cabin and made navigation more dangerous.

They fog didn’t scare away an entrepreneur, William H. Donner, who was born in 1864 in Columbus, Ind., and dabbled in real estate after reviving his family’s failing grain mill in his early twenties.

Donner made a fortune by investing in natural gas deposits that brought industry to Indiana. He rose to president of Union Steel Co. by 1899, three years after building a tin mill in Monessen, another steel town that shot up overnight across the river from Donora. Monessen was attractive to Donner because of its proximity to the region’s rich coal and natural gas deposits, and those resources he owned in Indiana were quickly being depleted.

Donner, however, sold his Monessen business to American Tin Plate Company and concentrated his efforts on Donora. The borough incorporated in February 1901, taking its name from Donner and Nora Mellon, wife of A. W. Mellon.

He enticed Andrew Mellon to his new investment in an 1899 letter stating the national consumption of wire rods was skyrocketing. That same year, Donner wanted to build wire and rod mills on Donora farmland to compete against American Steel & Wire Co. of New Jersey. That company was forming a monopoly, threatening the interests of Carnegie Steel Co, which included Frick among its largest suppliers.

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie offered to sell steel to Donner or purchase Donner’s new mills, a plan that initially fell through.

Carnegie and Frick parted ways so Mellon took the lead in Donora and brought Carnegie back into the fold. Carnegie saw no other way to compete against American Steel & Wire unless he built blast furnaces in Donora to supply Donner’s new rod and wire plants.

Carnegie met in Scotland with Mellon and Pittsburgh steel titan Charles M. Schwab to discuss Donner’s dream for Donora. Upon his return to the United States, Carnegie focused his attention on building railroads to integrate his mills with Frick’s coke fields.

Schwab, who would later become president of Bethlehem Steel Corporation, saw Donora as a gamble because of the high costs Donner was investing in the area.

Schwab did not like Donora’s location, either. Donner, Frick, and Mellon proceeded in Donora without Carnegie, but not for long. Carnegie returned and briefly leased the property in early 1901, and established a blooming mill on the site. By then, Schwab was president of Carnegie Steel, and about to broker a secret deal to sell Carnegie out to U.S. Steel.

In short order, U.S. Steel folded Donora into its corporation and Carnegie retired into a life of philanthropy. But Union Steel held tight to its holdings in Donora, and insisted it was not out to compete with U.S. Steel.

The creation of Donora’s new mills was announced June 21, 1901, in the local weekly newspaper, The Donora American, just four months after the U.S. Steel merger.

The Donora headline forecast the creation of one of the largest steel plants in the country, at a cost of $20 million. The company also was building the largest rod, wire, and nail mills in the world, plants that would be operating within a month in Donora.

Meanwhile, Donner announced his $1 million purchase of the Mesaba Iron Ore Range in Minnesota. It was the largest iron region in the world, and its mineral reserves would provide a source for producing steel in Donora for years.

New immigrants hungry for work and merchants quickly set out to build a metropolis overlooking the new factories.

Click here to read Part II

(Post card of Carnegie Steel in Donora courtesy of Casey Perrotta)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Snookered to Philipsburg

For most of my adult life, I have endured my siblings’ romantic tales about our ancestors who settled in Philipsburg, a quaint little town in Central Pennsylvania.

Our great-grandfather James Beveridge arrived in the small metropolis following the Civil War, having relocated from Scotland to work in the surrounding coalfields and join his many relatives who had earlier settled there. He married, raised two sons and returned upon his death to be buried in his beloved Philipsburg. It was a story of romance, and then tragedy, when his young bride, Mary Canning, died while her children were still small. I usually rolled my eyes when my brothers went on about the struggles of our immigrant ancestors, as I have little, if any, interest in genealogy and Philipsburg in particular. Truth be told, we don’t even know the exact location of the family graves.

But a few weeks ago, while in State College for a conference and less than 20 miles from our homeland, I decided it was finally time to see the place where so many Beveridges once called home. There are well-kept Victorian homes on tidy tree-lined streets making up the lovely town.

There is a well-preserved Old Mud Church built with logs in 1820 surrounded on three sides by a cemetery containing a prominent plot of graves marked with the names of members of the Philips family. Indeed, this must have been a town founded by proud people, I thought.

And then I picked up the story of the town’s founding only to learn that the Philipses were a bunch of charlatans.

The cagy Mr. Henry Philips and his brothers purchased 350,000 acres in the area, beginning in 1775, and quickly set out to lure followers. They accomplish that “by the means of less than honest and down right unscrupulous advertising,” according to the story.

The brothers boasted of a town fully developed beside a navigable river. But the first 12 followers found themselves standing in total wilderness inhabited by wild animals when they arrived. All but one of them turned around and settled in other neighborhoods. Even the railroad bypassed this godforsaken place for many years. And today, the rural areas surrounding the town are dotted with crumbling and decaying farmhouses.

Take this as a warning about what you might find when you go about snooping into the past.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

We love the sight of blood

By Amanda Gillooly

As I listlessly sifted through the pages of a celebrity magazine, trying to ignore the fuming rants of my uncle over the sub par performance of our Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals, something in the waning moments in the game caught my attention.

The story I was reading Monday about Britney Spears’ maybe-baby bump was completely secondary when I saw the brawl break out on the ice, and for the first time in several hours, I was actually interested in the game.

And, I realized after being transfixed by grown men on skates connecting their fists with faces for a few moments, that we’re not so unlike the Romans after all. We say – and hope – that our culture has evolved, but out lust for violence wasn’t quenched when the empire faltered.

No, we still love the type of competition that goes beyond skill and athleticism. Even the most self-proclaimed gentiles among us would admit that we require some amount of violence, bloodshed even, to truly become engaged in a sport.

When the play stopped and the punches started flying, the fans in the Detroit arena were thrusting themselves against the plexiglass wall that separated them from the scuffles, making it rock precariously back in forth.

The fans were inches away from the shattering teeth and smashed noses, and their facial expressions were almost as painful to watch.

They loved it. They wanted more.

The masses nearly escalated into mobs when they saw blood. Members of the crowd worked themselves into a frenzy when they saw blood spattered on their favorite player’s jersey, or when an opponent’s helmet skidded morbidly across the ice.

But, I’m not judging. I’m just saying, is all.

I’m not into hockey, but I’m just as guilty when it comes to the Pittsburgh “Stillers,” and football in general. I guess I probably have a similar facial expression when a receiver leaps for a pass only to be bent in half by a corner.

And yes, I do get some crude pleasure out of seeing some poor bastard signal for the fair catch only to be bowled over by the opposing team.

And, God help me, but every time New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady drops back for a pass, a big part of me wants to see him get crushed by a linebacker two times his size.

I truly savor those few seconds of humility.

I’ll be driving the bus to Hell for this, but I have fantasies about the pretty boy Patriot getting blind-sided by someone like my man, Steelers linebacker Larry Foote.

I see Brady grasping his knee in a painful embrace that says, “That one’s going to be career ending.”

Oh, come on. I’m kidding. I’m not THAT cruel.

But, Roman or not, Brady still sucks.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tribute to a victim of democracy

Joseph Roble was an idealistic young American soldier in Vietnam in 1967, hell-bent on upholding the goal of spreading democracy.

It was easy to tell from a letter the Latrobe, Pa., man penned home a few months before he was killed by enemy artillery in the infamous battle of Khe Sahn, where U.S. troops fought as if they were defending the last bastions of freedom.

In the letter, the 21-year-old lance corporal with the 26th Marines noted that he had seen a young Vietnamese boy playing in the distance who reminded him of his younger brother.

“I’m prepared to give up my life so he could have the same rights,” Roble wrote in the letter that was discussed Sunday during Memorial Day services at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Cecil, Pa.

Roble hailed from a time when ordinary souls could live in a free country where laws were established to allow people to govern themselves with fairness and justice, said G. William Jayne, a national cemetery coordinator.

However, Jayne said, citizen soldiers today are fighting an uncharted war against terrorism.

He said he wondered if democracy and its ideals can “continue to thrive under a new enemy who has nothing to offer us but hatred.”

“We don’t know what the future will bring us,” he said.

We didn't have a much of a clue about tomorrow in Roble's time, either. I wonder if he would think his death was noble 40 years later, when in Communist Vietnam, children and adults still don't share the luxury of freedom of speech.

(Click here to read David Shribman's take on the legacy of the Vietnam War)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Repro train station

Take another look at the train station in the photo, above, because it’s not a beautifully restored version of itself.

This is a view of the brand new West Newton Station, rebuilt with modern construction materials as the latest addition to a hiking and biking trail.

The Regional Trails Corp. invested $750,000 to create a life-size model of the old Pennsylvania and Lake Erie Railroad station in West Newton, an historic borough along the Youghiogheny River in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Contractors even used the original blueprints to recreate the building on the same site as the one that was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s.

The building, which opened seven months ago, serves as a visitor center for the group that developed the Yough River Trail, which is part of the Great Allegheny Passage. The network of trails stretches for 150 miles between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md., and attracts 700,000 visitors a year. It’s a great park, and those of us who live nearby are so lucky to have it in our backyard.

And, West Newton is a great place to start a journey on the abandoned rail line. The borough and its Colonial and Victorian houses more resembles a quaint village in New England than part of America's industrial rust belt.

The original settlement was named Simrall’s Ferry, and later Robb’s Ferry for Isaac Robb, who laid the town out in 1794. It’s first and biggest industry was the Markle Paper Mill that opened in 1859 but eventually closed because it was polluting the river. The rail line arrive there in 1860.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Good to have met you Rose

Rose Calderone was famous in the Mon Valley for a story about her serving John F. Kennedy scrambled eggs for dinner in her kitchen while others were dining on lobster and steak in her nearby supper club.

The Massachusetts senator also drank the local beer, Stoneys, when he went to her business, the Twin Coaches in Rostraver Township, Pa., to stump for votes in the 1960 presidential election, knowing Calderone had the power to swing many ballots in his favor.

She went on to provide good-paying jobs for women while attracting the best entertainment to the club after her husband, Tony, died unexpectedly the same year.

“It was either sink or swim,” she told the Observer-Reporter when she granted the newspaper a rare interview two years before she died Monday at age 93.

A native of Italy, she was a role model for many immigrants to America who wanted to rise to the top and retire at the best of their game. She was no one to mess with, either. Calderone kept a baseball bat behind the bar in case of trouble, and was known to turn men away if they weren’t wearing a dress jacket and tie. She insisted on dealing with class acts, at no expense.

Her obituary follows:

Rose Bruno Calderone, 93, of Rostraver, died Monday, May 19, 2008 . She was born in Mendicino, Italy on June 10, 1914. At the age of three she was brought to the United States by her late parents, Joseph Bruno and Maria (Nacarrato) Bruno.

Rose grew up in Monessen before moving to Rostraver. Rose was a longtime business owner and is best known for operating the Twin Coaches Supper Club in Rostraver with her late husband, Tony Calderone and in her later years for operating the Holiday Inn in Rostraver. She was a member of the Church of St. Anne in Rostraver and its Confraternity of Christian Mothers. She was also one of the founding members and was a member of the original board of directors of the Rostraver Business Association in 1975; and in 2005 she was honored as the business person of the year for the Greater Rostraver Chamber of Commerce.

She is survived by her daughter, Carmel Calderone of Rostraver; son & daughter-in-law, Anthony & Pat Calderone of Huntington Beach, CA; 3 grandchildren; Philip Calderone of Huntington Beach, CA, Leonard Calderone and Lisa & Kenneth Waite, all of Atlanta, GA; great granddaughter, Jessica Waite; great grandson; Taylor Waite; sister & brother-in-law; Angeline & Regis J. Serinko of Rostraver; brother, Albert E. Bruno of Huntington Beach, CA; 2 nieces, Maria & Kenneth Kite of Rostraver, Judy & Gary Means of Frederick, MD; 4 nephews, Bruce Bruno of Rostraver, Dr. Gerald Bruno of Jackson, MS, Dr. Regis J. Serinko, Jr. of Bellefonte and James Bruno of New York.

In addition to her parents, she was preceded in death by her husband, Tony Calderone in 1960; 2 brothers and sisters-in-law, James & Lena Bruno and Frank & Kay Bruno; 3 nieces, Marilyn Bruno, Donna Mae Beggs and Regina Ann Serinko; and a nephew, Joseph Bruno.

Friends will be received on Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m., Thursday from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. and Friday until 9:30 a.m. in the James C. Stump Funeral Home Inc., 580 Circle Drive, Belle Vernon/Rostraver Township (724-929-7934) www.jamesstumpfuneralhome.com

A Funeral Mass will be celebrated on Friday, May 23 at 10:00 am in the Church of St. Anne with her Pastor, Rev. Ronald L. Simboli presiding. Entombment will follow in the Grandview Cemetery Mausoleum in Monessen.

Rose's biggest love was St. Jude's Children's Hospital, so the family is suggesting memorial contributions to: St. Jude’s Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, the Jefferson Regional Medical Center Foundation, or to the Rostraver Food Bank.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A history of Webster, Pa., from "ye olden tyme"

The following is a transcript of an article published in the Donora American Dec. 4, 1908, one day before the Donora-Webster Bridge opened to traffic in Southwestern Pennsylvania:


Traditions of Visits of Washington
and LaFayette


On July 6, 1796, just twenty years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted to Peter Rothwell a patent for 175 acres of ground. This was mostly woodland and abounded in the deciduous forest trees of the region, among which were hickory, sugar maple and black oak.

Four days after the grant, Peter Rothwell and wife deeded the same tract to James Collet. It was bounded by the lands of George Martin, Benjamin Fell, Matthew Beazell and James Bruce, and the Monongahela River.

The land grants of the Martins, George and Joshua, antedate this and a large part of it remains yet in the hands of direct heirs of George Martin. Through a deal later, the Castners owned the part adjoining this tract on the south. Here the men who built the (grist) mill lived, cooked and slept. They were John Montgomery and brother, and John Pollock, who later owned the mill. John Montgomery’s sons worked fifty years later when the mill was rebuilt, he dying on the same day that President Garfield died.

A man named Wallace built the stone work and the stack, which still stands. There is an interesting tradition regarding the scaffolding breaking down, leaving him on top of the stack, until a difficult rescue was effected.

In connection with the grist mill, run by the same power, was a saw mill, and later gun stocks were made here. The timber of the region was good and stout. When in 1881 this building was torn down, many of these hewn timbers were (not) decayed after fifty years’ service.

Benjamin Fell was a Revolutionary character, who befriended Washington by helping him to furnish shoes for his barefoot army during the dark days of Valley Forge. After the close of the war, he came to this region, receiving generous patents around about Fells M.E. church, one of the oldest churches west of the Alleghenies.

Land deals moved quickly in these early days, for in six days more, on July 15, 1796, James Collet sold eighty-one acres of this tract to David Ryall. The longest side of this tract faced the Monongahela River and on this the older part of the village of Webster stands.

Although thirteen years later, on April 4th, 1809, David Ryall and wife conveyed their holdings to Jesse Davis. Whether Ryall or Davis built the farmhouse, still standing, is uncertain. It, however, was the home of Jesse Davis, and the river bottom was his orchard. This house was two-story, built of logs, now weather-boarded, and later became the home of Rev. Irwin Sansom, the pioneer Methodist minister of this west-of-the-Alleghenies region, and whose work and tradition still live.

About 1830-1832 the farming population took in hand to have a grist and saw mill. Jesse Davis sold a small part of his 81 acres to Thomas Van Hook. Joseph Finley, Justice of the Peace, gave material aid in this both as to money loans and labor. His son, Thomas G. Finley, born about 1820, remembers a log house on his father’s place being torn down and the logs hauled down by him, then a boy about twelve years old. It was erected little above the north side of the run.

In the period of financial inflation, antedating the financial crisis of 1837, Webster had its rise. It was laid out by Mathew and Ephraim Beazell, who were brothers; named for the great statesman, Daniel Webster, then in the zenith of power; and put upon the market by a colored plot which still lives in tradition. It had steamboats on the river and sites indicated for a courthouse, schools and other public buildings.

At an early date, a sawmill was built lower down the run than the grist mill, a tree marking the spot until recently. Steamboat building was the industry carried on there.

Among the oldest houses is one just opposite the post office. This was built for a hotel. It was kept by a man named Lightburn, whose wife was a Fell. This was the first place in Webster where malt and spirituous liquors were dispersed to the thirsty public. The men who built the steamboats boarded here. William Robinson was one of the head men in the boat building. A large boat that was put out from these docks and sent to Pittsburgh to be finished and furnished was called the “Breakwater.” William Robinson went on as captain and Matthew Beazell clerk. It was navigated as far as Wheeling, where it sunk.

When the Pittsburg papers reached port, as the afternoon waned, by way of the leisurely steamboat, startling headlines, “Destruction Complete,” noted the disaster.

The spiritual matters in these early years were cared for by Rehoboth Presbyterian Church and Fells M.E. church. Near Rehoboth Church stood a tree rendered memorable by George Washington sitting under it and writing a letter. Known historically, and by Fells Church, stands a tree under which LaFayette stood in 1820, the Nation’s Guest, and addressed the county folk, being brought so far by a calvacade from Elizabeth and met there by a like troop with whom was General Markle to escort him in the easterly direction.

Tradition also says that Washington on one of his retreats crossed the Monongahela River at a point called Turkey’s run; and not admitting that, tradition also says Washington, the surveyor between the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War, marked the present site of Donora and said, “It will be the site of a beautiful city.”

So much for ye olden tyme.

Carson’s cooper shop was an old landmark.

Webster was then confined to the South side of the run. Many other old houses still standing there are the Brown house and Dr. Birmingham house.

The Van Hook residence, now the M.E. parsonage, was built between 1832 and 1853. The house where A.A. Perkins lives was built by John Pollock in the 50’s.

The house across the street from the railroad station, owned by Wm. B. Butler, had a store room, carriage house, stables and in his early 60’s was the home of Wm. M.C. Dravo, the brother of the veteran river and harbor man, John F. Dravo.

Prior to the war, coal mines were opened and operated by James Blackmore, one time mayor of Pittsburg, and others.

The old brick house once used as a ticket office by the P. & L.E.R.R. was the place where school was first held. It was built by private subscriptions for school and church purposes. There was a pulpit as well as desks.

During the Civil War period North Webster had not more than ten houses, about this time Mayor John Power added to the town plot. His home was the brick farmhouse on the hill. Later in 1876 Captain John Gilmore plotted additional lots.

In 1876 Webster had no church buildings and six saloons. Later these were reduced to two and in the Eighties there was no saloon for about eight years. Now there are four licensed hotels.

A more modern planning mill and barge building plant belonged to this period.

There have been four public school buildings, two one-room houses, one on the present school site, where the rudiments were taught and one on the hill owned by the Pittsburg Coal Co. where higher education was added. On present site one four-room building was burned and was replaced by another, to which has since been added two rooms and a room used as a district voting place.

The M.E. Church of Webster was built in about 1866 and has had a long succession of ministers: Chapman, Stevenson, Moore, Freshnater, Miller, Hayes, Taylor, Weaver, MacCaslin, Hofelt, Humbert, Rodkey, Thompson, Joffreys and Morris.

The Presbyterian work begun with a Sunday school organized May 1st, 1873. The church membership was under Rehoboth Church until April 30, 1907. The church building was dedicated in February 1881.

Inside thirty years the Pennsylvania Railroad was built up as far as Webster on the west side of the river. The station being down by Gilmore’s Ferry for about ten years. The P. & L.E. railroad was completed to Webster about the summer of 1889.

The merchants of Webster, those who have traded during her seventy-five years’ history enjoy a peculiar rectory – there have been but few failures. Great things have not been exploited that is, not before the building of the bridge – and few have suffered at their hands.

Will the seventy-five-year-old township village, with its rich surrounding acreages, its abundant gas supply and coalfields, good yet for a century to come, grow seventy-five years young again with borough control, paved and lighted streets, streetcars; furnished with uplifting influences rid of those that debase and degrade? Who knows! The story of the 20th Century will be its story, and the curtain drops on this Nineteenth Century story.

Emma Perkins


Fort Hill which shields the home of Thomas G. Finley from the river view was fortified in the Indian times. The many arrow heads turned up by the plow show that Indian warfare was directed against it and whole Indian skeletons in good preservation brought to light the same way prove that braves met opposition from the fortified country folk. E.P.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Clowns you hafta love

“All charming people have something to conceal, usually their total dependence on the appreciation of others.” – Cyril Connolly

By Amanda Gillooly

At 3 a.m. last Saturday, I sat on the couch in a daze watching a show on Comedy Central called “The Amazing Jonathan.” I wish I could say I ran across the magic /stand up comedy show because I just got home from “clubbin,’ but I’m not that cool.

Indeed, I had not been gyrating on a dance floor. I was sitting delirious, having only been able to sleep three to four hours for few days previous. Add medication for my seasonal allergies into the mix, and I was largely unable to watch anything more challenging. I was hardly able to form coherent sentences.

While I secretly pondered how all the sneezing and coughing could rob me of my voice once again, I snorted out a few reluctant laughs. Remembering a dear college friend, I felt like I knew the guy in the show.

The amazing one was obviously talented, quickly retorting audience queries with his wit and keen comedic timing. The barbs were as funny as they were cruel, but people couldn’t stop laughing.

He was a jerk, but a likable jerk. And I only know this because he reminded me of that friend, who also shared that rare attribute.

Everyone laughed around Sam, who is now leading a successful life using his legitimate talent with his natural ability to make people laugh regardless of the cost. I personally watched him risk personal injury – including paralysis – just to elicit a chuckle or two.

My senior year, the campus radio station, WPPJ, held its annual fundraiser. To help pique interest in the evening hours, when commuters and part-time students were long gone, Sam convinced his best friend, Max, that pile-driving him through a table would be totally safe … and painless … and uncomplicated.

And just to be clear, it wasn’t a stunt table. It was one of those old sturdy faux-wood cafeteria tables with chrome legs and plenty of use to legitimize its durability.

Everyone in our group of friends thought it was a poor life choice on Max’s part. We tried to explain that he could conceivably suffer a serious injury to his neck, back, etc. We tried to explain that neither Sam nor Max was athletic. We even tried to tell him that the fact the pair never rehearsed the move was disheartening, if not dangerous.

But it was no use. Sam, our own lovable ass, always had more pull than any one of us. Uh, huh. No one could match the dude’s ability to psychologically manipulate someone in the name of comedy.

So the highly publicized “hard core match” went on as planned. And it was a packed crowd at the Point CafĂ©, our student lounge, mostly because word got out that someone would be put through a table. I’m pretty sure people took sides and even made makeshift T-shirts.

Both were lumpy white guys, but they were shameless. Wearing cut off T-shirts, they greased themselves up and walked out, putting on a show Vince McMahon would be proud of. There were feisty speeches. There was even a bit of water spitting.

A few minutes later all civilized thought and conversation was suspended as the two “fought,” grappling with each other as the crowd jeered and cheered. I think Max may have thrown a garbage can.

Then it happened; Sam somehow was able to hoist his much-heavier friend in the air just enough to slam him down into the table. Luckily, the force of their combined weight made the table buckle, and it snapped in half, sending them both crashing to the floor.

I can’t remember who actually “won” the hardcore match. That wasn’t the point.

After they were done gloating about the feat, they watched video footage and then bitched the next day when their bodies FELT like they were broken.

Max taught me then, as Amazing Jonathan reminded me, that there are few people in this world who are clever enough to always outwit you and brave enough to make fun of you in front of your face. And it’s even more rare when you find someone who can do all that and still be endearing to you.

Not everyone, I think, has encountered this type of humor, and you have to know it to appreciate it.

Maybe we all liked him because of his charisma, or because he was an equal opportunity heckler. Or maybe we liked him because he made fun of himself as much as anyone. Or maybe like the Great Gatsby, he just had one of those smiles.

One day, when someone actually got pissed over some remark he made, he pulled me aside.

“Seriously, do you think I’m a total ass?” he asked.

And I did the right thing. I told him what I’d learned about him after four years of classes, fun and fundraisers – I told him the answer was, yes.

“But you’re a total ass in the best possible way. You’re a loveable ass,” I told him.

He looked relieved, and that made me like him even more.

Sitting there on the couch, thinking of Sam, I was finally able to fall asleep before the amazing one uttered his final punchline.

{Note: Sam and Max are not the real names of Amanda's college friends, who have since grown up, taken respectable jobs and probably don't want to be embarrassed by her story. The graphic, at the top, is that crazy Jonathan dude.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A bridge to remember

Donora Fire Chief Patsy Vince, shown above, readies the Donora-Webster Bridge for a host of events this year, including the 60th anniversary of the Donora smog. More than 20 people died over a Halloween weekend in the area in 1948 in what became the deadliest air pollution disaster in the United States.

Residents of Donora and its neighbor, Webster, in Southwestern Pennsylvania also are in early discussions about how they plan to celebrate the 100th birthday of the steel bridge that connects the two communities. There is talk about them seeking a couple to get married on the bridge, as such a ceremony marked the Dec. 5, 1908, opening of the span.

Meanwhile, the fire department in Webster is planning an August 16 festival to mark the village's 175th birthday.

Stay tuned for more information about these developing stories......

Until then, here is a timeline, taken from the pages of the Donora American:

1902: A.W. Kelly, the squire of Webster, first pitched a bridge connecting his village to Donora in a meeting in Greensburg with Westmoreland County commissioners. He believed a bridge would help to revitalize his town because it was quickly becoming overshadowed by the boom in Donora. His suggestion led to six years of political fighting about the need for the span.

March 23, 1908: Both towns celebrate the groundbreaking of the bridge, which was expected to cost $150,000 and replace a wooden ferryboat operated by George Sickels.

The first week of June 1908: The first trainloads of steel, engines and derricks arrive in Donora.

June 18, 1908: Construction began, with the contract awarded to Toledo Massilon Co., which hired a subcontractor, Dunseath & Son of Pittsburgh. Dravo Co. had been hired to build the cofferdams and piers. Shortly thereafter, construction was delayed for a month because lumber for the project was slow in arriving from New York.

Oct. 23, 1908: The invitation went out to all communities of the area to attend the bridge opening, with the proclamation: “Hurrah for Donora. Hurrah for Webster.”

Oct. 28, 1908: The center channel span was swung into place. At 517 feet long, it became the second largest span over the Monongahela River, behind the Wabash Bridge in Pittsburgh, a railroad span that was demolished in 1948. Measuring 1,547 feet long, the Donora-Webster was deemed the largest structure of its kind in Pennsylvania.

Dec. 5, 1908: The bridge opened, nearly a month ahead of schedule, and without a single fatality among the workers at the job site. No other bridge of its size had been completed without the loss of a life. The worst accident during construction amounted to a worker smashing two fingers.

Click here to watch a video about the bridge.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Baby don't ask

Just bag the buns, please...

By Amanda Gillooly

“The secret of a man’s success resides in his insight into the moods of people, and his tact in dealing with them.” – Josiah Gilbert Holland

The cashier began giving me the stink eye as soon as we scooted our cart into her lane, she took exception that my boyfriend and I didn’t have a store shopping rewards card. When I asked her if I would still receive the scant price reductions it offered on the items, she raised her voice to tell me that I’d have to take it up with customer service.

Not wanting a hassle, and knowing there was no one in line after us, I told the lady to kindly wait a moment. I walked five feet to a nice older gentleman, who, thrust his key chain holding his rewards card into my hand the moment I mentioned it would add to his “fuel perks.”

When I went back to the line, the cashier looked insulted. Her one wandering eye searched feebly around, while an ugly snarl developed on her face.

She was rude from the beginning for sure, but Gram always said you could catch more flies with honey than vinegar, so I gave her a beaming smile and a hearty thank you.

I made no more eye contact because her wandering eye kind of freaked me out. I never knew which eye to look into, the one that was actually looking at me or the wayward one.

As I put my debit card into the machine and began punching in my pin, I heard the cashier say to me, “When are you having your baby?”

Yeah. There are no buns in my oven.

I wanted to rip her throat out, or at least ask why she had to bring my uterus into the conversation in the first place. I mean, her funky eye made me curious, but I was able to show restraint. I just ignored her, thinking, of course, that she would get the point.

Not so much. As I was pushing the “no, I don’t want any cash back” button on the banking card reader, she asked a second time, “When are you having your baby?”

While a number of responses were ready to go, I didn’t want a harassment and/or disorderly conduct record, nor did I want to call my editor and explain how I’d need a few days off to retain an attorney.

Instead, I looked up and smiled at her and said:

“Actually, I’m not pregnant. I tried to ignore the first rude comment, but obviously you didn’t get the point. Have a nice night.”

I wasn’t as embarrassed as she should have been. I don’t weigh 110, but I’m not a deuce, deuce-and-a-half, either. And that really isn’t the point, anyway. There is an unspoken taboo known only to woman: You never, never, ask a woman when her due date is unless you KNOW that she is, in fact, pregnant.

It is a shame that I didn’t say what was closest to coming out:

“I’m having my baby tonight with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” followed, by some slurping and the appropriate amount of maniacal laughter.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Out of the smog, a tribute to Mom's family

My mother, June, second from left, with her sister and parents on her wedding day in in 1952 in Webster, Pennsylvania, across the Monongahela River from the infamous Donora zinc works.
By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – The working-class neighbors who lived downwind of Donora’s smoky zinc mill had long feared the air was slowly killing them.

By October 1948, they were sure it was poisonous. Twenty people died, some gasping for their breath, and hundreds of others were sickened in this Monongahela River valley over that Halloween weekend.

My grandmother, Iva Dail Hart, tried to find fresh air in the damp basement of her soot-stained Victorian-era house in nearby Webster during the Donora smog event.

It was in that cellar at the time where the gentle woman whose hands comforted so many of her children, grandchildren and neighbors suffered her first heart attack.

All eyes were on the zinc mill as having caused what became the nation’s worst air pollution disaster.

But, a U.S. Public Health Service investigation in 1949 found no single cause of the deaths. It placed most of the blame on an unusual weather pattern that trapped the smokestack pollution from a U.S. Steel Corp. zinc mill from blowing east with the wind.

Historians and scientists across the world are still interested in the infamous smog, including Donora native Devra Davis, a scientist from Washington, D.C., who has worked under U.S. presidents from Carter to Clinton.

A visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, she was in the Donora area in 2004 filming a PBS documentary on her book, “When Smoke Ran Like Water.” It chronicles the dangers of global air pollution, using the Donora incident to underscore her findings that pollution continues to be a major, global issue.

Davis wanted to hear our family stories about life in Webster, just across the Monongahela River from the zinc mill, when there was hardly a blade of grass on the soil because of the pollution.
Davis also was curious about Iva Dail and Howard Hart, who became part of one of the nation’s first environmental movements at a time when people didn’t use the word pollution.

In the months after the smog, the Harts attended secret meetings at the Webster schoolhouse to help map plans to improve their environment. The group called itself the Society for Better Living, earning a Pennsylvania charter in May 1949. The society recognized a need to eliminate mill gases it claimed were harmful to the health of people, animals, real estate and the soil.

The group also feared the power of U.S. Steel, which owned the zinc mill, along with steel, rod, nail and wire mills on the Washington County side of the river. The expansive industrial site took root in 1900.

Some members of the society also worried about losing their jobs at the mills for speaking against the corporate giant.

Howard Hart, for example, worked on Donora Southern Railroad, which hauled coal, iron ore and limestone to supply the mill furnaces, along with finished products to Pennsylvania Railroad and the world steel market.

The mill owned the riverbank, too, having once employed as many as 7,000 workers behind barbed wire fences.

The society eventually sued U.S. Steel in federal court, hoping to expose the zinc mill as the source of the foul air. This was the same mill that turned out alloys so powerful they could stop bullets from penetrating U.S. Army tanks.

U.S. Steel settled with the Webster landowners, and took responsibility for the deaths and damage, federal court records show.

Federal lawmakers, however, noted the damage to Webster and the smog deaths as evidence to enact the nation’s first anti-pollution legislation in 1967. The Donora incident also provided the impetus for creating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Iva Dail Hart was not counted among the tragedy’s death toll because she died of a heart attack in 1960 at age 57.

In 1957, U.S. Steel closed what was once the largest and most complete zinc mill in the world. The company cited depleted ore reserves and outdated equipment as the reasons for the shutdown. The row of smokestacks was toppled within a year.

Our family of five moved into the Hart family home in October 1960. I wondered then, at the age of 4, why some of my new neighbors lived in black houses.

We moved there from nearby Charleroi, a town with clean neighborhoods, tree-lined streets, playgrounds and adults who encouraged children to play in piles of raked leaves in the fall.

My young eyes in Webster later looked forward to the excitement that followed heavy downpours. They always caused flash flooding along creeks and deep ravines because there was no topsoil to absorb the water.

Children here argued over who would pretend to be actor John Wayne in World War II movies, leading soldiers in and out of Webster’s craters that resembled war trenches.
Later, I would hear older neighbors talking about the days when the Webster air was routinely clouded by smog that ate the paint off clapboard houses.

Many of Webster’s withered wooden buildings would become abandoned in the rush to leave this town, founded as a boat-building center in 1833.

Some of those who stayed after the mill closed took new pride in their property, and they set about the task of covering their houses with a fresh coat of paint or aluminum siding.

It took years for grass to again cover Webster lawns and newly seeded trees to grow tall along the riverbank in the shadows of the old zinc mill.

(Reprinted from the Observer-Reporter)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A fast-talking druggist with powerful potions

M.C. McCallister claimed to have had a desire to spend most of his time honing his pharmaceutical skills in the late 1800s. Rest assured, McCallister was in “love with his profession,” he boasted in an advertisement for his drug store in downtown Monongahela, Pa.

Yet he dressed a woman, shown above, in a ridiculous costume that sported sponges on her head and dress, tonic bottles around her waist and big white puffballs across her bosom.

The ad went on to ensure that he “uses only the freshest and purest drugs and chemicals, and exercises the most discriminating intelligence and skill in all the operations of accurate prescription compounds.”

A native of Tippecanoe, Fayette County, McCallister was a master of the art of self promotion. While he claimed to have devoted his career to dispensing the right drugs, he also found the time to serve as president of the nearby Courtney Fire Brick Co., treasurer of the Monongahela Electric Light Co., director of a First National Bank and secretary of the local Methodist Episcopal church. There must have been some strong energy potions that he was cooking up behind his drug counter.

The portrait of the dark and scary woman, along with the ad, are displayed in a new Monongahela Area Historical Society museum at 230 W. Main St. that is open for limited hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

(Hey, send us a photo and information about any "signz" that crack you up and we'll consider adding them to our collection)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Join them for tea, if you dare....

Warning: This photograph could scare little children. I mean the glare in the eyes of the woman, seated, third from left, had to seem downright frightening to her friends when they saw this portrait. She was either mad as a hornet while posing with them or holding back a ton of gas.

They were a group of uppity women from the late 1800s that was known as the Friday Conversational Club of Monongahela, Pa. The ladies got together once a week to share their appreciation of music, sewing and reading. But some have been known to say they didn’t accomplish much other than sharing the latest gossip and sneers about what the others happened to be wearing that particular week.

The tiny city about 25 miles south of Monongahela dates to 1769, and it quickly became a bedroom community for the wealthy. However, many of the moneybags moved to Florida after the stock market crash of 1929, unable to afford the upkeep of their stately Victorian homes. The club lived on until 1975, having disbanded after shifting interest in maintaining a local historical society.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Empty promises of harmony

Old Economy Village museum is a tribute to a self-proclaimed prophet and a false dream of the second coming...

AMBRIDGE, Pa. – Members of an adventurous religious cult built themselves the largest second-floor room in the United States more than a century ago for communal dining. It measured 52 feet wide and 100 feet long, and boasted a barreled ceiling that stood without supporting columns, almost by a miracle. It was a fitting place in Southwestern Pennsylvania for special meals in anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ, something that was promised to them in the early 1800s by their charismatic leader, George Rapp.

Rapp brought his followers from Germany to a level bend along the Ohio River Valley in Beaver County in 1824, where they raised a sprawling industrial and agricultural community and toiled long hours spinning wool, grinding grain into flour and producing beer and wine. For their efforts in the new town of Economy, the so-called Harmonists received a modest, two-story brick house and all the supplies they needed to survive.

Rapp had earlier split from the Lutheran Church to find freedom from religious persecution and create a community of equality. His followers sought a simple life of piety and went as far as to take vows of chastity in 1807 to purify their souls since they believed Christ was about to walk through their front doors at any given moment.

But it appeared as if Rapp was the one doing the walking and talking. While his underlings enjoyed lives of simplicity, Rapp and his wife and adopted son lived in a 20-room mansion that rivaled those of the presidents of his time. The workers ate off of handmade pottery they turned from the red mud below their village while Rapp’s table was set with fine china and crystal. There was nothing to spare for a man whose beard and cone-shaped hat made him more resemble a garden gnome than a prophet.

At one point, he amassed $500,000 in his basement safe, which amounted to more money than was in the national treasury. Jesus never showed up for his appointment with the Harmonists, but Rapp continued to preach the second coming, and even repeated the message from his bedroom window in the hours before he died short of his 90th birthday.

The economic success didn’t come, though, without doubt of Rapp's rhetoric. More than a third of his hard-working Christians had already left the compound with another self-proclaimed prophet in 1832. Some 1,000 followers would leave in attempts to find harmony elsewhere. The ranks of those who remained dwindled because, well, few if any of the married couples were producing heirs to their utopia. By 1900, there were just six remaining members of one of America’s most prosperous religious communes and it dissolved five years later.

The trustees, after having invested well in railroads and coal, sold most of the land to a budding corporation that would become the American Bridge Co., and the town was renamed Ambridge. Meanwhile, the state took ownership of Rapp’s mansion and 16 other buildings in 1916 and turned them into a heritage museum.

Pennsylvania has been left with a fairly well maintained shrine to the Industrial Revolution, and a man who, by all indications, manipulated his flock to satisfy his ego. His collection includes such priceless artifacts as a reproduction of Benjamin West’s “Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple." But a leaking roof, like a festering wound under a damp cloud, has caused mold and forced the closing of one room to tourists. Something still stinks in the place. Really.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Rhino on roof

Highland Tire Co. in Southwestern Pennsylvania boasts that it’s “not your ordinary tire dealer.” And that goes without saying just by looking at its headquarters in Tarentum, a small borough where steel was once forged near Pittsburgh.

A giant rhinoceros is perched atop the roof, facing west toward the Ohio River and Tarentum Bridge. The roadside attraction was made of an unknown composition and put there nearly 50 years ago to represent the logo of Armstrong Tire and Rubber Co. The unusual advertisement was taken down a year ago for repairs, given fresh coat of paint and returned to the roof on a new wooden platform.

No one, apparently, took the time to measure the beast while it was on the ground. "It's big," the company spokesman said.