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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 about 20 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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