Beyond Big Steel: A Search for Purpose

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Beyond Big Steel, A Search For Purpose


Published in the Daily Record January 5, 2017

I happened to spend the weekend before the election in Donora, Pennsylvania. My wife and some cousins she hadn’t seen in decades had scheduled a small family reunion then, and I was fortunate enough to come along. What I saw might be a backstory to what happened the following Tuesday.

By and For Big Steel

In all respects, right down to its very name, Donora was a town designed by and for the steel industry. The name is an amalgam of the last and first names, respectively, of William Donner, founder of American Steel and Wire, and Nora Mellon, the wife of Andrew Mellon, a financier deeply involved in the industrialization of the Monongahela Valley below Pittsburgh. American Steel and Wire laid a production line along the Monongahela at the bottom of Donora, from blast furnace to wire mill, followed by the Donora Zinc Works – since you need zinc to finish nails.

The Zinc Works were where my wife’s grandfather worked. A skilled laborer from Ukraine, Nicholas Uhriniak was employed throughout his career at the Works. His was an archetypal American success. He and his Ukrainian-born wife, Mary, raised eight children, four of whom, among them my mother-in-law, wore the American uniform in the Second World War; their names are among those memorialized in an impressive veterans’ memorial near the main street. All by varied routes became middle-class successes in their own right. And Mr. Uhriniak built his own house, right at the top of the steep rise of hills above the Zinc Works. He must have walked or driven a mile nearly straight downhill to get to work and gone the same distance uphill to get home.

Above the Blight

Up top was a good idea. If you look down at the Works and its surroundings in a Defense Department aerial photograph taken in 1941, the era of the town’s greatest prosperity, you see blight in the vegetation radiating in all directions from the Works’ nine huge smokestacks. You did not want to breathe the air emanating from the place.

However, for a hellish week in October 1948, not breathing that air was not an option. An atmospheric inversion had trapped the emissions from the steel plant and the zinc works in this little pocket of the Monongahela valley, and people started to get sick and die, especially downhill from Mr. Uhriniak’s house. A contemporary map that plots nurse visits tells the story: higher up and further away was safer.

The Donora Smog, which directly or indirectly killed 70, including the father of baseball great Stan Musial, and left many with lifelong respiratory damage, became an international scandal (you can hear it referenced in the recent British TV series The Crown, as a yardstick for the killing London Fog of 1952). It was also a key inspiration for the movement to clean up industrial air pollution.

The mills at the bottom of the hill may have taken life, but they gave it too. When you visit Donora today, you can see the long main street and the churches, and all the houses nestled on the hillside. Perhaps it was hard to breathe sometimes, but the mills gave a living and a community to thousands.

The Fate of the Downtowns

The mills are all gone now, up and down the Monongahela. Donora was one of the first towns in the Pittsburgh area to stop making steel. Where Donora’s plants stood, other factories now stand, but they are making other things and obviously not employing the numbers that the mills did. The main street is clean and orderly, but there are at least as many empty storefronts as active ones. Not all of the churches are open now.

It would not be fair to blame the decline entirely on the loss of manufacturing. You can observe cityscapes like these from Newburgh, New York to Duluth, Minnesota, to Burlington, Iowa, and everywhere in between. Walmart and Amazon and McDonald’s have as much to do with the state of our downtowns as does deindustrialization. Nor is it fair to ignore the upside of the changes. You can breathe Donora’s air without fear now, for example.

New Life

Nicholas is still perched up on a high hillside, albeit a different one, alongside Mary, under a headstone in the cemetery for Orthodox-rite Catholics. And the house he built is getting ready for a new life.

After his death in 1970, it passed to a son, who himself died a decade ago. It’s a peculiar, homemade place where, for instance, your shoulders touch both walls as you go down the stairs to the basement. But it certainly achieved its own purpose: a large family was fostered there. And now the family from the house next door is about to continue its history. The neighbors’ daughter and her boyfriend wanted the place to raise their own family, and the price was right.

The day we visited, the young man and his prospective father-in-law were hard at work renovating it, and the work was good. The young man, obviously a craftsman, was in charge; the dad was his help. There was happiness in the air, especially when the daughter dropped by.

I don’t know where the young man’s day job may be, but the demise of the mills hasn’t killed all economic activity in the region. Fracking is bringing some natural gas prosperity to the area, and ammonia and plastics are among the town’s products. Many young people have left, but this couple will be living next door to the wife’s parents.

Still Value

Big Steel has abandoned its creations. Nostalgia for the smokestacks Big Steel bestowed will do no good. The stacks can’t come back, and shouldn’t. The mill towns may never find an equivalent replacement, but there is still value in the Donoras, in the housing and the main streets, and the network of family and community ties. There remains a life there and a will to survive. We as a society need to side with the Donoras in their search for new purpose. It is the right policy and the right politics.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for archive photo

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