For decades during the mid-1900s a Chamber of Commerce sign at the Donora town line read, “NEXT TO YOURS THE BEST TOWN IN THE USA.” Donorans found an odd pride in being a second-best town, no matter where a visitor came from. Perhaps that was to be expected. The town didn’t originate naturally, as a place people moved to because they liked the area or as a natural outgrowth of an urban area. No, it originated because industrialists in Pittsburgh thought it would make the best spot to build steel and zinc mills.
Those mills attracted people from around the world. The first sale of lots in Donora occurred on August 30, 1900, a day that brought “a great rush of people” to the area, with home sales totaling $225,000 that day alone. People came from Kansas, Alabama, Ohio, and West Virginia. They came from Poland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Scotland. They were Roman Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, Pentecostal. They were hard-working, adventurous, and determined. They were proud to live in Donora and proud of where they came from, and to maintain that pride they formed vibrant social clubs.
Social clubs began forming in the United States during the mid-1800s and continued throughout the next century. Women’s clubs, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and National Consumer’s League, found their calling in working toward social change at a national level. Men’s clubs tended to focus on exercise, sportsmanship, and social development. Those clubs, like today’s country clubs, tended to attract wealthy individuals, as did the much more elite city clubs, such as the Union League Club in New York City, which catered to moneyed men in oak-walled, richly carpeted rooms lined with billiard tables, liquor cabinets, and sterling-silver cigar ashtrays. Or the even more elite South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club on Lake Conemaugh, in western Pennsylvania, a summer club for the likes of Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Clay Frick, and the club that, through gross mismanagement of a dam on the property, caused the historic Johnstown Flood of 1889, which killed more than 2,200 people.
Then there were the more fraternal societies, such as the Masons, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (and the Improved, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, an Elks-style organization for black Americans). All told about 5.5 million Americans belonged to one club or another by 1900.
In Donora, as in thousands of cities and towns across the country, a different kind of club emerged, a kind that focused on a sense of community, belonging, and support for local interests. Some clubs were based on religion, others on ethnic similarities. The strong ethnic diversity in Donora led to the development of a Slovak club, Rusin (Russian) club, Spanish club, Clan Grant (for Scottish men) and the Broomie-Knowe Lodge of the Daughters of Scotia (for Scottish women), as well as Sons of Italy, the German Political and Beneficial Union, the Croation Club, and St. Dominic’s Mens’ Club, a club for Roman Catholic men.
Along with those clubs, 17 churches sprang up between the town’s founding in 1901 and 1920. The town’s population by then had swollen to more than 14,000, a period of remarkable growth for such a small area. Supporting that growth were clothing stores, banks (the Mellons led the way on that front), restaurants, a movie theater, lumber mill, post office, fire and police departments, and a host of other enterprises. Donorans were a busy lot, always scheduling this activity or that and always walking up and down Donora’s famously pitched stairs to meetings, parties, and parades.
Header image: John Carson, longtime member of Donora Elks Club, at bar shortly before the club closed for good in August, 2018