a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A new glimpse into the Donora story

August Chambon, the mayor of Donora, Pa., during the infamous smog of 1948, said he expected his borough to someday become a city.

But he couldn’t have been more wrong because the former steel town, today, is a third of its size six decades after it experienced the nation’s deadliest air pollution disaster. The smog is among the many reasons Donora’s mills became the first in a long line of these factories that permanently shut down in America from Philadelphia to Chicago.

Fortunately, for the sake of history, California University of Pennsylvania has preserved a tape recording of a short speech Chambon gave the year of the smog. It’s among a new digital file of old photos and other documents the university created on the rise of Donora and the smog that helped to bring about the nation’s first clean air laws.

The new exhibit has been assembled by Nick Roberts, a Cal U. instructional specialist who helps local schoolteachers gain access to the National Library of Congress' digital files in developing their lesson plans. Click here to sort through the new Donora files.

(The photo of the wire works at American Steel & Wire Co. in Donora, taken in July 1925, and the one of Chambon are courtesy of the Donora Historical Society and California University of Pennsylvania)

1 comment:

Nancyi Revak said...


After nearly 70 years, I still see the Donora Smog through a kid's eyes. It's as clear as though it happened yesterday.

It started the night of the Halloween parade. My parents had just returned from visiting my brother at Ft. Meade, Maryland.

Being one of a few 12-year-old clarinet players in the Donora Dragons High School Marching Band, I was supposed to march in the parade. But my parents wouldn't let me because it was getting too foggy.

The next morning, I remember looking out the windows of our house at 1133 Marelda Ave. and seeing nothing but this thick, grayish-white stuff pressed against our windows. (It was thicker than cotton candy or flying through clouds on an airplane). Then I noticed some of the grayish-white stuff creeping in from under the front door like smoke.

I thought I was having a nightmare in some creepy horror movie.

Mom, Baba (my grandmother) and I were home alone and had terrible headaches. To make matters worse, Dad, who was a forman at the steel mill, was stuck there and couldn't come home to protect and save us.

The smog was so thick you couldn't see your hand in front of your eyes. So no one dared venture out.

As time wore on, Baba became so sick we phoned for a doctor. But we couldn't get one to come out. Our home sat on 11th Street hill (above the Zinc Works at the end of town). And no one was willing or able to risk the unseeable twists and turns to get to us. They also were too busy with too many other emergencies closer to downtown.

Word started to spread that many people had gotten sick from the grayish-white stuff and some were even dying. Were we going to be next? The stuff had us encased and isolated. We were alone. Who would find us? Would anyone rescue us? There was nothing we could do but sit and wait.

I don't know if the adults thought it was anything more than a thicker fog-covering than we usually got from the Monongahela River. If they did, they were good at hiding it. But for a kid like me, it was really scary.

I don't recall how many days it was before the thick, grayish-white stuff started to thin out and go away. But we finally were able to get food and clean clothes to Dad, who had to stay at the mill a few days longer. Boy was I happy to see him!

As an adult, I eventually realized what had happened and what was to blame. But you can't convince me that the toxic smoke billowing up our hill from the Zinc Works below didn't have something to do with it.

Three years later, American Steel & Wire promoted Dad to position in Cleveland and we moved to Parma, Ohio. But I still have wonderful memories of Donora before and after the smog.

Nancy Revak (now living in Los Angeles and contending with the Los Angeles smog! ;)