a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The town before the trees died

By Scott Beveridge

It’s often been said that Webster, Pa., shown in the background of this photo, was a picture-perfect village before America’s Industrial Revolution brought a zinc mill to its border.

Aside from its having a small, bustling business district, the town in Westmoreland County also had sprawling farmland, orchards and well-kept houses, as this shot from 1909 documented.

That would all change six years later when the infamous mill in neighboring Donora opened and its pollution began to strip Webster’s hillsides of its vegetation. It became an environmental disaster that spanned four decades.

There are many stories on this blog about the Donora mills, the infamous 1948 smog in this bend of the Monongahela River and the deindustrialization of the region. They can be found by searching Donora or Webster in the search engine at the top of this page.

I posted this photo because it offers some evidence that a steel mill that opened just south of the Donora-Webster Bridge in 1901 was not responsible for the acidic air that caused the trees to die in Webster. It’s the first such photo of Webster before the zinc mill that I’ve ever seen.

It’s also a great illustration of how big steel encroached on farms and recreation at a time when livestock grazed up to the American Steel and Wire Co. complex fence and baseball was played beside a crude coal mine railcar loader.

The game was being played at the time on Gilmore’s Field that later was known Fourteenth Street Field before the zinc mill wiped it off the map.

Meanwhile, there is little known here today about the Gilmore family that once operated a ferry on the river.

(Photo courtesy of Donora Historical Society)

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