70 years ago, deadly smog in Donora started a clean air movement

Get a glimpse of life in 1948 at The Donora Smog Museum.

595 McKean Ave, Donora, Pa.

595 McKean Ave, Donora, Pa.

MJ slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

At first, the dark fog wasn’t unusual.

In 1948, it was typical for there to be a haze over Donora, a town on the Monongahela River, until the afternoon due to the mill and zinc works. Usually, it cleared up.

But in October of that year, the fog lingered for days.

It was toxic.

In three days, hundreds of people got sick and more than 20 died, according to The Donora Smog Museum. The killer air of late October 1948 popularized the term “smog” — the combination of fog and smoke or industrial pollution — and led to federal regulations on air pollution.

And it all happened just an hour from Pittsburgh, 70 years ago.

“If you grew up in Donora, you know about it,” said smog museum volunteer Brian Charlton, a historian and high school teacher who grew up hearing the story from both sides of his family.

Some said the nearly weeklong smog was a “freak of nature,” and others said it was mill management’s fault, he said. “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”

What made October 1948 exceptional was that changing temperatures trapped pollutants in the valley, when they normally rose into the atmosphere, according to the museum.It wasn’t until it rained on Oct. 31 that the smog dispersed. By then, more than 20 people were dead in Donora, which was home to 14,000 people, and nearby Webster and Sunnyside.

For a long time, people who lived through it didn’t want to talk about it. Plus, people in Donora wouldn’t speak ill of the mill, a major job source. Though some people started to talk about it more afterAmerican Steel and Wire Company closed the mill in the late 1960s, others “never lost the sentiment,” Charlton said.

“They were embarrassed in the early days, and they wanted it forgotten,” he said.

But researchers wouldn’t let the borough forget, and over the years, some people opened up. More than 20 were interviewed in the early 2000s for the documentary “Rumor of Blue Sky,” and you can see full versions of the interviews at the museum, said museum and historical society volunteer Mark Pawelec.

And in 2008, The Donora Smog Museum opened.

Along the main drag of McKean Avenue, in a former Chinese restaurant, The Donora Smog Museum chronicles the deadly days and the clean air movement pre-dating Rachel Carson and “Silent Spring.”

To mark the 70th anniversary of the deadly smog — and the museum’s 10th anniversary — you can attend two events.

  • WQED producer and Monongahela-native David Solomon will show his mini-documentary “Our Water, Land & Air,” at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Donora Public Library followed by a Q&A session with survivors and experts.
  • Charlton will give a public presentation about the smog event at 1 p.m. Oct. 27 at the museum. (Get a preview of his lecture from his interview with C-SPAN.)

The museum also allows the Donora Historical Society to continue collecting and cataloging information and items that tell the borough’s history. That includes souvenirs from the 1908 opening of the Donora-Webster Bridge, which was imploded in 2015, and a display about native baseball greats Stan Musial, Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr.

Run by volunteers and only open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays (check the website before you go) or by appointment, it has an international audience of researchers still looking for answers. Donora is now home to just 4,600, per the U.S. Census.

“It’s amazing how many people find us,” Pawelec said, adding that researchers and students come from as far away as China.

“The story is so dramatic,” Charlton said.

While you’re at the museum, here are four things not to miss:

A glimpse of life in 1948

To set the scene of Donora during the smog event, the museum includes a living room display from the 1940s. Look for the combination radio and record player, the shoe shining kit, a manual typewriter, and a 1948 Donora High School yearbook.

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mj slaby / the incline

Photos of early mill workers

“We have one of the best collections of glass plate negatives,” Charlton said. (Imagine a photographer with a camera on a tripod who goes under a curtain to take the photo.)

Copies of the photos are on display, like this one, one of Charlton’s favorites, because it highlights the diversity of mill workers.

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mj slaby / the incline

Meet the Society for Better Living

Although the Society for Better Living was based across the river in Webster, it was one of the first groups to sue the mill. After the smog event, 30 families sued for millions of dollars and later settled out of court for somewhere around $250,000, Charlton said.

Pawelec said he was surprised by the number of lawsuits before the smog, spanning the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. However, groups like the Society for Better Living didn’t have enough money to compete with the mills and would eventually lose, he said.

The first lawsuit filed against the mill in Donora was actually filed in Washington County in April 1920, Charlton said. The plaintiff alleged that their garden didn’t grow because of the zinc works, and the judge ruled against them saying he didn’t know if the plants weren’t growing because the plaintiff was a bad gardener or the zinc, Charlton said. Even then, he said, people knew zinc was bad for the environment, they just didn’t want to speak up.

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mj slaby / the incline

An air tank used in smog response

Firefighter Jim Glaros was an emergency responder in 1948. There was no hospital in Donora at the time, just 11 doctors who, along with firefighters, went door-to-door to try to take care of the sick and offer them oxygen from the tank. Emergency workers really weren’t prepared for something like this, Charlton added.

After years of using the tank, Glaros donated it to the museum.

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mj slaby / the incline