a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Friday, January 27, 2012

They don't have to be pretty to be historic

The village of Webster, Pa., and its sister town of Donora, in the background, have qualified for listing on the National Register of Historic Districts. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

DONORA, Pa. – The Donora area defines America's rust belt with its history of blight and economic decline that began before big steel collapsed in the Pittsburgh region in the 1980s.

Webster, across the Monongahela River from the southwestern Pennsylvania borough, has a rough-and-tumble reputation, and its smattering of old houses disappears in a few blinks of the eye in a car's rear-view mirror.

"This town was once thriving," said Diane Martin, a former guide at a Donora museum dedicated to a deadly pollution event in 1948 that contributed to the demise of steel industry here.

"We are trying to make things happen," she said at the 3-year-old Donora Smog Museum.

She, along with members of Donora Historical Society, has new reason to hope for a better image, because state preservation experts believe these two towns qualify for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Districts.

"It doesn't have to be pretty to qualify," said April Frantz, a preservation specialist with the National Register program at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

"We thought that, yes, there was a story there worth telling that it might be something viable as a National Register Historic District," Frantz said.

Webster, in Westmoreland County, is among the oldest settlements in the mid-Mon Valley, having been settled in the late 1700s as an agricultural center. Its economy shifted to boat building, iron ore manufacturing and coal before it was quickly overshadowed by Donora and its sprawling steel and zinc mills built in 1901 and 1915, respectively.

"Webster was an important town," said Charles Stacey of Donora, a member of the local historical society and retired Ringgold School District superintendent.

When the air turned acidic after the zinc smelters went into production, the farms and many buildings across the Mon disappeared as the fumes deteriorated clapboard siding, sickened livestock and killed much of the vegetation.

"As far as I'm concerned, Webster suffered more from the pollution than Donora did because that's where the wind blew everything," Stacey said.

Donora's decline was set in motion by the Donora smog of October 1948, which killed more than 20 people and sickened thousands over a Halloween weekend. The zinc mill was blamed, along with a heavy fog pattern that settled over the Northeast, and U.S. Steel eventually took responsibility for the tragic event, according to settlements in federal lawsuits filed by the victims and their relatives.

The smog became the deadliest air pollution disaster in the United States and the impetus for the first federal clean air laws after Webster residents launched an anti-pollution crusade.

The Donora mills began to shut down in the 1950s, and would, within a decade, become the first major steel operation to close in the United States.

The fact people still have a sustained interest in the smog story is yet another reason why the towns have preliminary approval to be eligible for the National Register, Frantz said.

"It was very dramatic stuff," she said.

She said the PHMC review of the smog story grew out of talks with the state Department of Transportation on the fate of the Donora-Webster Bridge, a century-old span listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

PennDOT closed the bridge in July 2009 because of a weakened deck and has indicated plans to reopen it, pending securing the money for repairs.

A listing on the National Register does not prohibit PennDOT from demolishing the bridge. However, it does require complicated negotiations with the PHMC that require consideration of alternative plans before federal money can be spent on tearing it down.

Stacey said he is among those who want to see the bridge restored and reopened, as its closure is adding more harm to the struggling local economy. The towns don't have a gasoline station or grocery store but do have residents who still would prefer the smog story not be told, Martin said.

Some of them didn't even want the smog museum to open in 2008 in time for the 60th anniversary of the tragedy, Martin said.

"They said, 'Let it die. No one wants to talk about it,'" Martin said. "A lot of people said it didn't even happen."

Donora considered the smog to be a "black mark" on its reputation, added Sandy Mansmann, a coordinator with Washington County History and Landmarks Foundation.

"For the young people who come out of the Valley, it's especially part of their history because their families were involved and they should know about it," Mansmann said.

The PHMC study of the towns is still under review, Frantz said in Feb. 2011.

It could take years for a nomination to the National Register to materialize. An eligibility determination, though, affords such districts the same federal and state protection as if they were on the register.The protection makes it difficult for public agencies to demolish such structures when using federal money for redevelopment.

(This article first appeared in February 2011 in the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa.)

1 comment:

Gina said...

'Let it die. No one wants to talk about it,'" Martin said. "A lot of people said it didn't even happen."

Similar things have been said about much of human history's uglier moments, and it's sad. We should never forget things like that.