5 Tips for Building Your Own Town

5 Tips for Building Your Own Town

If you’ve ever wanted to start your own town, there may be no better formula for it than the one William H. Donner used to start Donora at the turn of the 20th Century. Donner was a colleague of banking and industrial magnate Andrew Mellon, and they had decided to build a series of steel mills south of Pittsburgh. Donner found in some land along the Monongahela River the perfect spot to create a town. Let’s take a look at how he did it.

#1 Find the right location

DonoraAerialDonner had been operating a tin mill in Monessen, Pennsylvania, not far from the area that would become Donora. Donora lies inside a horseshoe-shaped curve in the “Mon” about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. Donner decided that the area met all, or at least most, of his criteria for the new mills.

The land along the river was flat and already being served by a railway. It was large enough to accommodate the mills he planned to build. The river could serve as a north–south highway for his products, and there was enough undeveloped land in the area to house all the workers he would need.

#2 Buy as much land as you can

Donner purchased land from many early settlers, including the large Castner property. Peter Castner, usually considered the first settler in the area, had moved from his home in Berks County and had set down roots along the banks of the Mon in the summer of 1775, a time of enormous upheaval in the nation. After the war Pennsylvania officials granted Castner, a war veteran, a swath of land to call his own. That area, and an adjoining property belonging at one point to a Nathan Hammon, would ultimately become home to several of Donner’s steel and zinc plants.

castnerfamily

Above photo from From Donora (Images of America), by Charles E. Stacey, Brian Charlton, and David Lonich

#3 Build it, so they will come

You can’t have a town without people, of which Donner would need about 5,000 to run the mills he and Mellon had decided to build. Donner and company offered home lots for sale starting August 30, 1900. From that to the end of 1902, about 1,000 buildings had been erected and 6,000 people had moved in.

frankbellamy

A number of those residents came from, of all places, Cherryvale, Kansas, home of Francis “Frank” Bellamy (right), a Cherryvale High School student who famously penned the Pledge of Allegiance as an entry in a national student contest in 1892. Cherryvale is located in the mineral-rich area known as the Tri-State Mining District, which had been a key source of zinc and other minerals since the late 1870s. The area had attracted many skilled workers from Spain.

A significant number of those Spanish laborers, hearing about the mills to be built in southwest Pennsylvania, decided to move there and build a new life for themselves. The Donora mills would ultimately be peopled by workers from Spain, Poland, Italy, Hungary, Germany, Austria, and many other nations.

#4 Don’t forget infrastructure needs

donoralumbercoIf you’re going to have people live in your town, you’re going to need housing for them, and to build houses, you need lumber. One of the first businesses in Donora was the Donora Lumber Company, founded by Charles Potter of nearby Charleroi and several businessmen from Pittsburgh. Wood from the company was used not only to build Donora houses but, later, to build the World Trade Center, the famed wooden roller coaster, Thunderbolt, in Pittsburgh, and the outfield fence for Three Rivers Stadium, former home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Donora Lumber Company continued to supply lumber until its closure on January 9, 2016, after more than 115 years in business.

#5 Oh, and you need a name

Choosing a unique, memorable name for your town can make or break the town’s success. There are, for instance, 41 Springfields in the U.S. Forty-two if you count Homer Simpson’s town. There are 24 Franklins, 24 Washingtons, and 23 Chesters.

Boring.

noramellon

When Donner and Mellon were deciding on a name for Donora, they considered calling it Meldon, but eventually opted against it. (The name lives on, though, as one of the main streets in Donora.) They finally decided to combine Donner’s last name with the first name of Mellon’s wife Nora (right). Hence, Donora. And unique? There is no other town anywhere in the world, as far as I can determine, with the name Donora.

As for me, I’ve decided that when I create my own town, I’m going to name it Andyville. Or maybe McPheesterton. Or Andydandytown.

I guess I had better keep working on it.

bluepenicon

Is Andrew Posey Buried Here?

Is Andrew Posey Buried Here?

You can see the gravesite from the Stan “The Man” Musial Bridge, but you would find it unremarkable. It is an odd gravesite, sitting as it does on a patch of grass in the middle of a dirt parking area next to a welding company in an industrial park on the banks of the Monongahela River.

poseyheadstoneA yellow-brick wall about 3 feet high and 20 feet long forms the back of the grave, and at each corner is a pair of brick cornerstones. Steel tubes connect the structures. A small American flag stands next to a concrete cross with a bronze plate bearing the words, “Andrew Posey.”

There are no dates, no markings of relatives buried next to him, just the one cross that bears his name. Posey had been one of tens of thousands of men who returned home from Europe after World War I. He found work as a ladle stopper in the open hearth plant in Donora, which is where the 21-year-old veteran died.

Ladle stoppers were responsible for ensuring that the exit for a ladle — some ladles weighed 100 tons or more — was clear, so steel could pour out. On January 8, 1920, Posey had jumped, or perhaps fallen, into an empty ladle to clear a blocked exit when an explosion blasted out the back of the ladle’s furnace. The blast poured thousands of pounds of 3,000-degree molten steel into the ladle, incinerating the poor man into mist.

steel ladleThe family was understandably angry at the mill and pushed to have their loved one’s remains memorialized in some way, but because there were no remains, plant officials decided to transport the entire ladle, complete with the now-solid steel, and bury it down the road. That ladle is buried at the Posey gravesite. Quite a story.

But here’s the thing. The story is a myth.

Yes, Andrew Posey was killed in an explosion, but to think that any plant supervisor at that time would have done anything to memorialize one of its workers is to greatly overestimate the level of concern management expressed about its workers. Management viewed its workers as essentially chattel back then, knowing that if a mill worker was injured or killed on the job, another able-bodied man (women didn’t do such work) was ready to take his place. Workers who suffered burns, fractures, or other injuries were expected to go right back to work, sometimes the same day. And the workers didn’t put up a fight; they knew that their and their family’s survival required that they keep working, no matter what.

Donora plants sometimes kept notes on workers, but not always. If a plant kept any notes, they tended to be scant and barely indicative of the worker’s impact on the plant’s success. James McKenzie, PhD, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of North Dakota, found his father’s entire 48-year work history in the Donora mills notated in a few lines, including these:

  • 12-3- 28 open hearth laborer
  • 11-2-58 combustion chemist
  • Wife sick
  • Vacation
  • Replace Louis Miller
  • 5-2-77 last day of work

No, the management of the Donora steel mills in 1920 most likely would not have cared enough about Andrew Posey to take a furnace offline, remove a 100-ton ladle, cart it a half-mile down the road, and bury it. They might have, and most probably did, tell the family that they had buried it, and then given the “event” some hoopla, just to get the Posey relatives off their back. They also probably told workers that day not to say anything about the accident. Unfortunately no solid evidence is available of exactly what steps the mill took.

So, what’s the truth?

A study by the Mon Valley Progress Council in 1995 indicated that the earth beneath Posey’s gravesite is just dirt, nothing more. “No slab or ingot of steel is located within the area of our investigation,” the report noted.

Even though Andrew Posey is not buried under that square of grass and weeds, his memorial still demands attention. It symbolizes, in an antithetical way, the continuing issues faced by workers across the nation. Don’t people deserve a wage high enough to at least qualify for a poverty-level life? Don’t they deserve a safe work environment? Don’t they deserve a chance to fight for their rights when management becomes greedy?

I would argue that they unquestionably need all those things, and I believe Mr. Posey and his family would argue that as well.

bluefrogicontiny

Donora’s Field of Dreams

Donora’s Field of Dreams

The old Donora High School building still stands at the top of 4th Street in Donora, Pennsylvania, an orangish-brick reminder of a more prosperous time. It’s the kind of school millions of people of a certain age might have attended. Behind this high school lies an old football field, with goal posts at either end and remnants of four sets of stadium lights standing watch over the weeds and dirt.

To look at the field now is to gaze at history itself. A Donora native had brought me there on a recent visit. I stood at the foot of that field, standing silently and imagining. I imagined myself back at my own high school, where I served as what they called manager, a position responsible primarily for yanking grossly sweaty jerseys over the head and shoulder pads of even grosser and sweatier players.

I imagined the field lined with chalk, the now disintegrating bleachers filled with fans, and two teams lined up at a midfield scrimmage line. I could nearly hear the cheers and smell the popcorn from the refreshment stand over by the home team bench. It was mesmerizing.

This wonderful field, known locally as Legion Field, had been home to the Donora Dragons until 1970, when the Donora and Monongahela school districts were consolidated into what then became the Ringgold School District. Probably the most famous player to ever sprint down this field was the legendary Joseph “Joe Cool” Montana. Montana was unequivocally one of the greatest quarterbacks in history and a Hall of Fame pick in his first year of eligibility. And he played here, right here in Donora, on Legion Field, where all Ringgold games were played. He threw, ran, passed, called plays, and gave hundreds of cheering Donora fans what they wanted, fans who couldn’t have had any idea then just how famous he would eventually become.

joemontanayoungandoldHe looks much younger in my imagination, not the aging but still youthful 60 he looks like today. No, in my mind he’s the rugged, tousled hair youth with a toothy grin. That’s the player I saw that day, and I smiled.

As I stood there there, with a gentleman born, raised, and living now in Donora and whose sister was a cheerleader for the team, I knew that of course Joe’s team would win.

And it did.

bluepenicon

The 5th Street Stairs: A Sweet Story

The 5th Street Stairs: A Sweet Story

There’s a town along the Monongahela River, just north of the bright yellow Stan “The Man” Musial Bridge, called Donora. The old mill town is famous for being the “Home of Champions,” most prominently the aforementioned baseball legend, plus Ken Griffey, Sr. and his son, Ken Griffey, Jr, who was born in Donora but moved with his parents to Cincinnati when he was six.

The Musial and Griffey homes are located uphill from the main drag, McKean Avenue, which runs along the flood plain next to the Mon, as locals call the Monongahela. When I say uphill, I mean it. Pretty much all the roads emanating from McKean upward are rather steep, particularly 5th Street, part of which was closed off years ago because it proved too dangerous for car travel.

5thstreetstairsOn 5th Street now, between Prospect and Murray Avenues, there is a street-wide swath of grass with a set of stairs on either side. The stairs on the right, looking upward, are replacement stairs installed a number of years ago. The stairs on the left, however, are original and tell an interesting story.

Each riser, from the very bottom to the very top, is but 4 inches tall. Most stairs today have risers about 8 inches tall. So why do the 5th Street stairs, and many other staircases in Donora, have risers half that height?

It turns out that Rose Marie Iiams’ grandfather-in-law was the engineer who designed the stairs. Mrs. Iiams, 90, was a long-time pharmacist in Donora and worked all day, every day during the 1948 smog event. The story she tells may be apocryphal but it’s adorable nonetheless.

“Women were wearing hobble skirts then,” she says.

hobbleskirtI didn’t know what a hobble skirt was, so she kindly explained. “The skirts were sort of tight, so you couldn’t raise your legs very far..

Go on.

“Well, his wife was a little woman, and his daughter was a big woman. And he measured the distance that each could raise her legs, and he made the steps halfway between.”

Then she laughed and said, “Isn’t that a marvelous story?”

It is indeed, Mrs. Iiams, it is indeed.

bluefrogicontiny