Try to Imagine

Try to Imagine

Try to imagine, if you will, what it must have been like for volunteer fireman Bill Schempp and Assistant Fire Chief Russell Davis during those dark, smoggy, suffocating days and nights of late October 1948. Both men worked day and night to bring oxygen and other assistance to Donorans who had become sick from the smog.

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That Friday night, October 29, after watching the annual Halloween parade with his wife, Schempp received a call at home from Fire Chief John Volk that he needed to bring oxygen to ailing Donorans. Schempp threw on his heavy, brown turnout coat, clipped the stainless steel buckles closed, slid his feet into a pair of black rubber boots, and snugged his DFD helmet onto his head. He strapped on the oxygen tank he kept at home, the green one, labeled TO BE FILLED WITH COMPRESSED OXYGEN ONLY, and walked out the back door, onto Thompson Avenue, into the dark fog.

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Bill Schempp at a fire practice

Walking had become so difficult by then that he dropped to his hands and knees and crept through the heavy, burning fog, feeling his way from house to house. Once inside he gave oxygen to the people who needed it most. Chief Volk would radio Schempp new homes to visit, based on the calls he received at the station. Each visit lasted only a few minutes. Schempp would fit a thick rubber mask over the ailing person’s nose and mouth and turn the oxygen on for 10 or 15 seconds, delivering what he called a “shot of oxygen.” Sometimes he gave one or two shots, rarely three, over a period of five or ten minutes. Just as the person began to breathe more easily, Schempp would shut the oxygen off, remove the mask, and move to the next house, to the next person clamoring for help. There were so many people to help, he was afraid the oxygen in his tank would run out.

Assistant Fire Chief Russell Davis was also roaming Donora that night, handing out shots of oxygen. “I didn’t get to bed until Sunday,” Davis said. “This fog was so bad you couldn’t even get your car to idle. I’d take my foot off the accelerator, and—bango—the engine would stall. There just wasn’t any oxygen in the air. I don’t know how I kept breathing. I don’t know how anybody did.”

And so it was that Schempp and Davis, men who had fought fires and transported the sick and injured to local hospitals, men who had comforted those who had lost their home or loved ones, were forced to decide how much oxygen to give each of their neighbors desperate for air. They had to say over and over, No, I’m sorry. I have to go. They had to listen to critically ill people and their loved ones plead with them, begging for more oxygen, and then walk away, knowing they might never see those friends alive again.

Imagine the torment they must have felt, the guilt, the overwhelming sadness of being essentially helpless in an unfathomable tragedy that, in the end, claimed at least 19 lives over that weekend and hundreds, probably thousands, over the coming months and years.

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Unidentified victim being transported to an area hospital during the smog

The physicians of Donora didn’t fare much better. They, too, clamored throughout Donora, doing whatever they could to help their patients. Drs. William Rongaus, Edward Roth, Martin Hannigan, Sr, and Ralph Koehler, among others, all made house calls throughout town that weekend. They injected adrenalin into patients suffering from asthma and used whatever other medicines they carried until they, too, fell ill from the smog. Koehler had to stop visiting homes at 1:00 AM that Friday night, so sick from the fog was he. “I had to go home,” he said. “God knows I didn’t want to, but my heart gave out. I couldn’t go on any longer without some rest.” He was days away from his 49th birthday and would die from a heart attack less than ten years later.

How many victims those caring souls saved cannot be known with any certainty, but surely the number must run into the dozens, maybe hundreds. In the kind of noxious conditions Donorans found themselves that October, even momentary relief from a shot of oxygen or adrenaline might well have been enough to survive until Sunday, when rain came to break up the fog.

Imagine the pride that Schempp, Davis, Koehler, and the others must have felt when they realized that the vast majority of the people they aided had survived the weekend. They might never have bragged about it—and in fact I have found no evidence to suggest that any of them ever did—they surely felt the kind of deep, warm gratification that can come only from saving a life. They would have felt honored to have been there to help and grateful that their skills alleviated suffering at such a perilous time. Those are the kinds of feelings the men would have carried to their dying day.

Just imagine.

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Donorans, Dressings, and the Fight Against Cancer

Donorans, Dressings, and the Fight Against Cancer

Cancer was once a word uttered soto voce, a word so dangerous it would conjure demons and visions of the Spectre of Death. A barely-known radiologist named Marjorie B. Illig helped to change that, and the women of Donora readily jumped aboard her world-changing vision.

In 1936 Illig was serving as a field representative for the American Society for the Control of Cancer, now called the American Cancer Society. As a former radiologist Illig had seen firsthand x rays of abdomens poisoned with whitish splotches of cancerous tissue. She told her colleagues that physicians could identify early traces of cervical cancer and that, if the ASCC encouraged women to seek preventive care, millions of lives might be saved.

womensfieldarmyposter.jpgThe ASCC listened and formed an all-volunteer group called the Women’s Field Army, whose members wore khaki uniforms and whose mission focused on urging American women to seek early detection and treatment, a key part of the new-found “war on cancer.” Illig was made National Commander of the group, which succeeded beyond all measure, growing the number of people active in cancer control from 15,000 in 1935 to a million and a half by 1939.

In the 1940s, the group took on a mission to support women being treated for advanced breast cancer. Back then thousands of women, unaware or in denial of the beast growing inside them, failed to seek treatment for breast masses. At some point the cancer would break through the skin, causing painful, caustic lesions that oozed blood, pus, and the grotesque remnants of diseased tissue.

These poor patients needed dressings to cover their wounds and absorb the fetid exudates. The ASCC asked their volunteers to make cancer dressings, which they crafted from white sheets, and cancer shirts, to be used as johnnies. Many Donorans aided in the cause, among them Donora native Gladys Schempp, one of her neighbors, and their two daughters, Annie and Cathy. Gladys belonged to a women’s club that worked throughout the year to help charities. Annie still remembers the times she made cancer shirts.

“We had to sit there and take the collars off men’s white cotton shirts,” she recalls, “the collars and the cuffs and all the buttons. We had to do that on the weekend. I remember how I didn’t want to do it, but, of course I did whatever my mom and dad told me. I was young, I would have rather played than do that, but my girlfriend was there so it wasn’t terrible. We could complain together.”

Youthful laments aside, the shirts and dressings made by the women of Donora, and by women in towns all over the nation, helped to make life more bearable for tens of thousands of women, women whose cancer was so advanced that their remaining time on Earth was rapidly coming to a close.

americancancersocietylogoThe American Cancer Society continues to recognize the tremendous work that Gladys, Annie, and the many thousands of ASCC volunteers performed. “More than anything else,” says the ACS website, “it was the Women’s Field Army that moved the American Cancer Society to the forefront of voluntary health organizations.”

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What’s In a Word? The Etymology of Smog

What’s In a Word? The Etymology of Smog

I am by no means an etymologist, but I do find word origins fascinating. Take the word smog, for example.

Smog itself — a combination of smoke and fog — has afflicted humankind for thousands of years, but the word describing it seems to have begun in London in 1905. According to an article in Journal of the American Medical Association that year, a health expert, possibly Dr. H.A. des Voeux, treasurer of London”s Coal Smoke Abatement Society, used the term “to indicate a frequent London condition, the black fog, which is not unknown in other large cities and which has been the cause of a great deal of bad language in the past. The word thus coined is a contraction of smoke fog “smog” — and its introduction was received with applause as being eminently expressive and appropriate. It is not exactly a pretty word, but it fits very well the thing it represents, and it has only to become known to be popular.”

jabberwockyThe word smog is a portmanteau, a word that blends the sound of two different words. Lewis Carroll, famed author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, coined the word portmanteau to describe the kinds of words he invented for his delicious poem, “Jabberwocky.”

Aside from rare use among scientists, the word smog virtually never appears in print until the 1940s, when its use spikes, almost certainly as a result of the Donora tragedy in 1948. Interestingly there was no such spike in the 1930s, when 60 people were killed in a smog event in the Meuse Valley in Belgium. There is no separate word for smog in Dutch, nor in French or German, the three most prominent languages used in Belgium. The greatest likelihood of smog not peaking in the 1930s is because the word hadn’t been in use enough even in scientific literature until that time. For instance, the word fails to appear in a 1937 article in The Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology, called “The Fog Disaster in the Meuse Valley, 1930: A Fluorine Intoxication.” The article uses instead “fog,” “smoke,” and “thick mist.”

The word begins to register, but barely so, in the late 1930s, climbs a bit in the early 1940s, and really begins to soar from 1948 through the 1960s. (See chart, below.)

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The word climbed steadily in use until 1966, when suddenly its use skyrocketed. During six days in late November that year, Manhattan was flooded with smog, leading to the death of an average 24 people per day. Like the Donora smog, the Manhattan smog was caused by pollutants trapped near earth’s surface by an extended temperature inversion.

The word smog kept rising until its peak in 1972, two years after Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, the most comprehensive anti-pollution measure to that date. Since then use of the word has trailed off, but smog itself remains a common and important topic of conversation, even — and perhaps especially — today.

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Gone Was the Wind

Gone Was the Wind

Looking back on those dark, horridly smoggy days in Donora in 1948, one tends to think first of the smoke, the dirty, dusty, sooty smoke, with all of its toxins, pouring out of the smokestacks of the zinc, steel, and wire mills that dominated the valley back then. One tends not to think much or often of the other elements involved, those that, together, set up so perfectly the tragedy that befell the town. Among those elements was the wind, of which there was virtually none.

If even a slight breeze had strolled through the Donora valley that week the smoke would have broken up, giving residents some respite. But no, there was no breeze to be had, not in Donora, nor in Monessen to the south, nor in Monongahela to the north. There was, in fact, nary a breeze to be had throughout the entire Northeast that week.

The image below is part of a national weather map from September 29, 1948, a month before the Donora  tragedy. The black lines, marked here by orange arrows, indicate general wind speeds. The closer the lines, the greater the wind speed. On this day the wind was pretty much normal, with light breezes along the eastern U.S.

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Now look at this map from October 29, in the thick of the smog that killed so many in Donora and Webster. Note how far apart the lines are. Wind bands are almost non-existent, and in the Donora valley along the Monongahela, there was no wind whatsoever.

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With conditions like that, air in the valley stagnated, collecting pollutants and sickening thousands. That morning Ralph Koehler, one of Donora’s eight physicians, looked out his bathroom window over the rooftops below, toward the mills. A glint of light caught his eye as he watched a train plodding along the tracks. Normally smoke would have risen from the smokestacks into the air, but that day something odd happened. “The smoke was belching out,” said Koehler, “but it didn’t rise. I mean, it didn’t go up at all. It just spilled over the lip of the stack like a black liquid, like ink or oil, and rolled down to the ground and lay there. My God, it just lay there!”

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Map from 10/31/1948

The absence of wind at ground level prevented the natural upward movement of smoke not just from the train but also from the nearly dozen 200-foot-tall smokestacks of the various mills. It wasn’t for another two days, on Sunday — Halloween — that Donorans felt their first puffs of wind in six days. That Sunday a cold front (blue arrow, right) moved in from the west and brought with it a slight breeze, light showers toward midday, and then a steady rain later. Between the wind stirring the lifeless air and water droplets washing the soot away, the fog lifted and the air returned to what Donorans considered rather more normal.

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Who Died in Donora’s Deadly Smog?

Who Died in Donora’s Deadly Smog?
Edited 1/2/18

A granite slab lying flat on the ground marks the grave of Jeanie B. Kirkwood, a victim of the Donora smog of 1948. Everyone knew her as Jeanie, but her name was actually Jane. Jeanie was born in Wishaw, Scotland, about forty-five minutes southeast of Glasgow, to Alexander Rensick and Mary Mackie on November 11, 1880, just a few days after James A. Garfield won the U.S. presidential election. She arrived in this country in New York in 1911, moved to Donora, and worked as a practical nurse until her retirement.

Both Jeanie and one Ivan Ceh died at two o’clock on the morning of October 30, 1948, the worst day of the smog. Jeanie and Ivan were the first victims of the worst smog event in U.S. history, the smog that led the way to the nation’s first clean air act. Both individuals show up in pretty much everyone’s list of victims, as do Ida Orr, John Cunningham, Andrew Odelga, and Perry Stevens.

DHSListofVictimsPlaqueA bit of context. I’ve been immersed for the past few weeks in researching all the people usually listed as smog victims, and it has been interesting. Most newspaper accounts in late 1948 and early 1949 use 20 as the total number of victims from the smog, which began on Tuesday, October 26, and ended the following Sunday, October 31. Historians at the Donora Historical Society (DHS) have typically used the number 27 as the total count, based on a slightly longer time period for the event, a reasonable approach. I may end up, when this phase of my research is completed, with a longer time period as well, possibly even longer than the DHS timeline. For instance, I want to include Thomas Amos Short, who died from asthmatic bronchitis, a commonly listed cause of death from the smog, and whose death certificate specifically indicates “(Smog)” in the cause of death. (Below, right.)

thomasshortdeathcertsectionAll the lists I’ve seen, though, are slightly inaccurate. Now, developing any ancestral history can be difficult, to say the least. Inconsistent spellings of names can be an issue, especially in newspapers.The Daily Republican, a newspaper in Monongahela that ceased operations in 1970, listed Marcel Karska as a victim, but the name was actually Kraska, referring to a 66-year-old Donora resident who died at 11:45 AM on the 30th. The DHS list includes one George Weisdock, but his name was actually Hvizdak, often anglicized to Weisdack. Pretty much every list includes the name William Gardner. His actual name, however, was Cardner, with a C.

Then, too, the extent of information can leave much to be desired. It seems that not everyone received a death certificate in 1948, or, if they did, it was lost or never archived. Marriage applications, census data, immigration passenger lists, and so forth, are also often inaccurate or provide inconsistent information.

Donora residents in particular pose an issue, because so many of them were immigrants whose names Americans found difficult to pronounce and, thus, to spell. Census data are filled with erroneously spelled names, owing at least in part to an oral interview process of people with thick, foreign accents.

So it is with a fair degree of caution that I provide the following lists of victims and non-victims of the death fog. To the best of my knowledge the information here is accurate as of today, January 2, 2018.

NOTE: If you have information on any of these individuals, please reach out to me at atmcphee@gmail.com. I would be most appreciative.

Victims

  1. Ivan Ceh
  2. Barbara Chinchar
  3. Taylor Circle
  4. John C. Cunningham
  5. Bernardo Di Sanza
  6. Michael Dorincz
  7. William Gardner
  8. Susan Gnora
  9. Milton Elmer Hall
  10. Emma Hobbs
  11. Ignace Hollowiti
  12. Jane (Jeanie) L. Kirkwood
  13. Marcel Kraska
  14. Andrew Odelga
  15. Ida Orr (not Ore)
  16. Thomas Amos Short
  17. Perry Stevens
  18. Sawka Trubolis
  19. John West

Commonly and Inaccurately Listed as Victims

  • Clifford E. DeVore, who died on May 5, 1949, from terminal pneumonia
  • George Weisdack, whose actual last name was Hvizdak, who died December 22, 1948, from chronic myocarditis and nontuberculous lung abscesses
  • Mary Rozik, commonly listed as Mary Pozik, who died May 4, 1949, from hypostatic pneumonia, bronchiectasis, and cardiovascular disease, a catch-all used principally for arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis, which often occur together

To Be Determined

  • Steve Faulchak
  • Ruth Jones
  • John Poklemba
  • Peter Stancovich
  • Alice Ward

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Who Was William Donner, the Man?

Who Was William Donner, the Man?

There is a softness to the man’s eyes, a gentleness that belies his fierce devotion to honesty in business. His mouth rests in a slight smile, as if at his young age he has no worries at all. That man, William Henry Donner, possessed one of the sharpest business minds of the early 1900s.

YoungWilliamDonnerMost people know Donner, if they know him at all, as the founder of Donora, a town with a name unlike any other in the world. They might know that Donner was connected to the Mellons —Andrew W. and Richard B. — and that he was instrumental in creating the zinc and steel mills in Donora at the turn of the 20th Century. They might not know much else.

So, who was this man, the man who nearly single-handedly took some rocky land next to the Monongahela River and brought into being an entire town that supplied steel for the Golden Gate Bridge and nails, steel rods, and wire fencing used throughout the nation?

Born on May 21, 1864, to a German father and British mother, Donner grew up in heady times for the nation. The Civil War had been going on for more than four years and wouldn’t end for another year, when Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1965. Donner’s family made their home in Columbus, Ohio, in a modest brick house in what is now the Topiary Park area, where Donner lived until he moved to Monessen at age 33. Donner left high school before the end of his junior year to work at his father’s flour mill, which had just lost its supervisor. Donner learned how to judge the quality of wheat and, more important, how to buy and sell it. The flour mill served as Donner’s apprenticeship, and he proved an astute young businessman.

From the beginning, with only an exception or two of minor, learn-from-it mistakes, Donner was able to identify the true value of a product or property and then negotiate a fair and reasonable price. Although there were times when he took advantage of a seller, he otherwise sought fairness in the final bargain. He moved quickly and decisively whenever he was being treated unfairly by a competitor to rebalance the relationship. Donner was not a man to be trifled with or tricked. Once, when he was managing his father’s flour mill, Donner learned that his competitor had been giving some, but not all, of its customers a secret rebate on every barrel of flour they bought each month. Donner and the competitor had previously reached “an understanding, a gentleman’s agreement,” Donner said, “on the price of flour delivered to the grocers and bakers. I adhered strictly to those prices and supposed he did the same.”

When Donner learned that his competitor was in fact not adhering to those prices, he became infuriated. “I had been stupid, and my pride had been hurt.” He immediately slashed his prices and began telling grocers and bakers in the city that his competitor had been fleecing them. Then he confronted the competitor himself. “Since you have given private rebates,” Donner scolded, “I want you to understand that we intend to sell fifty percent of the flour sold in Columbus and will continue [to offer] low prices until we secure that percentage.” The competitor fumed but eventually brought his prices in line with Donner’s, and within a few months Donner’s mill was serving about half the Columbus market, just as he had promised.

Donner’s drive for fairness, coupled with his knack for mathematics, came in handy when he built a tin mill in Monessen in 1897 and, later, steel, wire, and zinc mills in Donora, which he built and managed under the guidance of Andrew Mellon. He studied the area deeply, built lasting relationships with landowners, hired like-minded contractors to construct the mills as well as homes for the workers, and always sought to pay a fair price for good work. The mills, eventually bought by U.S. Steel, became a successful and profitable operation, providing steel and wire for the nation’s growing infrastructure.

OlderWilliamDonner.jpgDonner never forgot where he came from, that unassuming brick house in Columbus, and in later life became an active philanthropist. After losing a son to lung cancer in 1929 Donner created the International Cancer Research Foundation, which morphed into the William H. Donner Foundation and continues to provide grants and support for a number of human rights organizations. He was also an important benefactor for his college alma mater, Hanover College, and was founder of the Donner Canadian Foundation, which focuses on public policy initiatives. The foundation each year awards the Donner Prize for the best book on pubic policy by a Canadian.

Donner died in Montreal on November 3, 1953, at age 90, with that gentle smile still intact.

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A Lesson in Negotiating

A Lesson in Negotiating

Donora, Pennsylvania, would likely not exist today if town founder William H. Donner hadn’t finally persuaded Margaret Heslep, a surprisingly crafty negotiator, to sell her land.

MapofOriginalHeslepFarmMargaret, widowed since 1872, owned a 140-acre farm on the Monongahela River in southwest Pennsylvania, where Donner, along with his partners, Andrew and Richard Mellon, wanted to build several steel mills. Donner knew that the Heslep property was critical to those plans, so he asked James McKean, who represented the Mellons and lived in Donora, “Would you have any objection to my meeting with Mrs. Heslep about the property?”

“Certainly not,” McKean said with a knowing laugh, “go ahead.” McKean had already been down that same road, unsuccessfully.

Over the coming days and weeks Donner met with Mrs. Heslep numerous times to ask about purchasing her land. Each time he received a polite but firm, “No.”

“She was always very pleasant to me,” Donner wrote in his autobiography, “and invited me on several occasions to stay for meals.” Mrs. Heslep told him more than once, “Mr. Donner, I’m sorry to have to keep saying ‘no’ to you.”

Persist and SuccedPersistence was unquestionably the 35-year-old Donner’s most important characteristic. Why should this obstacle, a pleasant, honest woman saying no, keep him from achieving his goal?

“You’re wasting  your time,” McKean told him. Andrew Mellon agreed, saying, “It’s hopeless.”

Maybe, thought Donner, but still….

The breakthrough came during one of Donner’s visits when he asked Mrs. Heslep about buying some of the drift coal located on her property. “I won’t sell any coal,” she told him. “It is all in the hill.”

Donner suddenly realized that her repeated denials might be covering up a deeper wish to protect her coal. “Perhaps her husband had told her to hold onto it,” Donner speculated. From his land surveys Donner knew that the Heslep coal deposits, as well as Mrs. Heslep’s home and gardens, occupied about 70 acres. So he asked, “Might you be willing to sell all of your property except for those 70 acres?”

“You might make an offer,” the widow responded.

Donner knew right then the land would be his. “I will pay you $375 per acre,” he said, an amount totaling $26,250, equivalent to nearly $700,000 today. She turned him down.

“You paid $400 an acre for the Allen property,” she told him.

“Yes, we did,” Donner admitted, “but Mr. Allen’s property was the largest in the area.”

Again, she refused. “I positively will not sell at that price.” Her price was $500 per acre, she insisted, “and not one cent less!”

Heslep’s daughter decided at that point to ask Donner to stay for dinner, an offer to which he readily agreed. After what must have been a pleasant but rather tense meal, Donner told Mrs. Heslep that he would accept her price.

But Mrs. Heslep, a cool negotiator, wasn’t finished. She insisted on a stipulation. “Mr. Donner,” she said, “I would ask that you bring me $500 in gold by noon tomorrow. This shall bind our agreement.”

The next morning Donner placed an envelope of gold coins worth $500 on her dining room table. Astonished, Mrs. Heslep threw up her hands and said, “Take it away! I could never sleep with that much money in the house!”

Finally content with the sale but not yet finished negotiating, Mrs. Heslep told Donner he needed to give her one last item. “Mrs. Heslep told me,” said Donner, “that according to some custom, the details of which I cannot recall, I should also give her silk for a dress.”

The next day Donner had a friend purchase a “suitable” piece of black silk, which he immediately presented to Mrs. Heslep at her home. “She was delighted,” Donner said, and a sales agreement was finally signed.

phrenologyheadWhen Donner notified the Mellons that he had succeeded in purchasing the Heslep property, they were stunned. Richard Mellon laughed, and told Donner, “I should like to have a phrenologist examine your skull. That lump for perseverance must be immense!”

Q: How much were Donner and the Mellons prepared to pay Heslep for her land?

A: Per Donner, “Her property was so important to our plans that we would have paid $2,000 per acre if necessary.”

________________

Post script

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By Kathi Lynn King

That marvelous negotiator, Margaret Heslep, who died in 1907, is buried alongside her husband, in a distinctive gravesite in Monongahela Cemetery.

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