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.

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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.

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Death in Donora

Death in Donora

The Monongahela River meanders from the West Virginia coal country to the middle of Pittsburgh, where it joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio, a famous confluence called Three Rivers. Along the way the river curls around this hill and that, forming elbows and horseshoes that can make travel between towns along its banks long and lonely.

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Donora along the banks of the Monongahela

Along one of those curves, a large horseshoe about 30 miles due south of Pittsburgh, lies a a town called Donora, an old mill town that would largely be forgotten now were it not for an unusually long patch of unlucky weather that led to the deaths of hundreds of people and ultimately prompted the creation of the Clean Air Act. For it was at that horseshoe curve that at the turn of the 20th century a wealthy Indiana industrialist, William H. Donner, and his famous boss, Andrew W. Mellon, had decided to build a series of steel plants to supply the growing needs of a flowering America.

The plants employed thousands of Donora residents, supplied steel and wiring for hundreds of buildings, bridges, and highways, and spewed untold tons of respiratory pollutants and irritants into the air. In the fall of 1948 Mr. Donner’s plants gave grave notice to the town that all was not well.

donora-oct-30-960x450_cOn Tuesday October 26, the air over Donora became foggy from cool air being trapped beneath warmer air above in what meteorologists term a temperature inversion. Normally inversions last less than a day, but this one lasted a devastating five days. Within two days the fog had turned into a stinging, yellowish-gray shroud so thick that many people couldn’t drive, couldn’t even walk without stumbling. “It was so bad,” said one resident, “that I’d accidentally step off the curb and turn my ankle because I couldn’t see my feet.”

On the worst day, Saturday the 30th, two brave volunteer firefighters, Bill Schempp and Jim Glaros, worked their way around town, each feeling his way from house to house to deliver oxygen to residents with respiratory problems. Each visit lasted only a few minutes and happened the same way. The firefighter placed a mask on someone struggling to breathe and turned the oxygen on for just a few seconds, what they called a “shot of oxygen.” Just as the person began to breathe more easily, the firefighter then moved to the next house. The residents needed continuous oxygen but there simply weren’t enough oxygen tanks to go around. “These people were just desperate for air,” said historian Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Smog Museum and active member of the Donora Historical Society.

So it was that two firefighters, men who had lived and worked with the people of Donora for years, who had fought fires, transported the sick and injured to local hospitals, and plucked frightened cats from raging storm drains, had to decide how much oxygen to give each resident. They had to say over and over, No, I’m sorry, as they shut off the oxygen and removed the mask. They had to listen to those desperately ill people plead with them, begging for their life, and then these volunteers had to walk away knowing they might never see their friends alive again.

epa-logo_edited-1All told 27 people would die over that six-day period, at least 50 more the following month, and hundreds more over the following years. The event spurred an investigation by the Division of Industrial Hygiene, then part of the U.S. Department of Public Health and now part of the Environmental Protection Agency. After numerous states, including Pennsylvania, enacted their own clean air acts, the Government decided that clean air should be a national priority and in 1955 passed the first national air pollution law, initially called the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 (public law 84–159), later renamed the Clean Air Act.

Today Donora residents maintain a sense of pride about the tragic events of that dark October 68 years ago. In a 2009 interview with NPR, long-time Donora resident Don Pavelko said, “We here in Donora say this episode was the beginning of the environmental movement. These folks gave their lives so we could have clean air.”

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