a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The mysterious photographer of Donora steel

The town of Donora owes a debt of gratitude to Bruce Dreisbach, an early 20th century photographer who left behind a vast and impressive collection of local images.

But most of his story remains a mystery to the Pennsylvania borough, said Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Historical Society that owns the Dreisbach collection.

American Steel & Wire Co. apparently brought him to town because it wanted him to create a visual record of a new steel mill in which it was investing millions of dollars in Donora. Dreisbach shot groundbreakings, gatherings of steelworkers, scenes of them toiling in the zinc works, steel products and thousands of other scenes of one of the most infamous mills in the world. He also worked for stretches in the mill as an engineer and safety inspector.

Donora went on to become forever associated with the smog of October 1948 that killed at least 20 residents and sickened thousands of others. Considered the worst air pollution disaster in the United States, the smog became the impetus for the country’s first clean air laws.

All the while, Dreisbach faded from memory until his wife, Lulu, died about two decades ago and many of his glass negatives were found in her apartment above the then-Mellon Bank Building in downtown Donora. He had a fancy for shooting hundreds of shots of her, too, and dressing his beloved model in the hats of the day or silly costumes.

Several other boxes of Dreisbach’s glass negatives turned up at a flea market in Virginia, only to be purchased and donated to the historical society, Charlton said.

It’s a wonder why the mill took such great measures to capture this history and then its executives decided to abandon the record when they closed the mill in stages, beginning in 1957.

The historical society also has acquired through donations a large collection of microfilm containing blueprints of mill buildings and others in downtown, steel sales records and flyers the company sent out to clients to advertise its wire products.

“It’s all very fascinating stuff,” said Charlton, who has viewed some of the film at California University of Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, the historical society doesn’t own a microfilm reader to allow the public the opportunity to view this collection at its new Donora Smog Museum. Meanwhile, the local library’s microfilm reader is broken, rendering these records to the imagination.

But luckily, many of Dreisbach’s photos are on display at the museum at 595 McKean Ave., a destination that is gaining in popularity. Some of the collection also can be viewed at the digital archives of the University of Pittsburgh, where the photographer’s name is spelled incorrectly.

(Captions: That's Bruce Dreisbach, top, and his silly wife, Lulu, above. Photos courtesy of Donora Historical Society)


James McKenzie, Saint Paul, MN said...

I cannot help but wonder if Dreisbach was not another of the many Germans who came up from the Braddock mill as part of the early days of construction. My grandfather, Frank Finsinger, was in that early group, though about all I know of it is family stories that he lived in a box car while the mill was being built, and washed his clothes in the Mon River. He was a carpenter and had worked in Braddock, as had many other late nineteenth/early twentieth century German immigrants. The Finsingers came through the port of Baltimore.

Dan said...

Great post. I wish there were more photographs of Monongahela. This collection is a great treasure.

Dan said...

In my comment above I meant that I wish there was a similar collection of photographs available for the city of Monongahela, not that I wish there were more posts about Monongahela on your blog.

It's great that someone is blogging about the history of the Webster-Donora section of the Monongahela Valley!

Scott Beveridge said...

Thanks Dan. I understood what you were saying. Donora is lucky to have had a good photographer taking so many pics of that particular mill town. It's a shame no one knows much about him.

There are a lot of old Monongahela photos in your historical society in scrap books. You have to ask them to bring them out.

W. Keith McManus said...

Nice story Scott - glad his photo archive has been saved.