The history of the borough of Donora and its industry is closely woven. Its rapid growth as a community is tied to its growth as a wire, steel and zinc center.
In May, 1899, R. B. Mellon began the purchase of approximately 380 acres of land for the Union Improvement Company. During the same year Union Steel Company was organized by W. H. Donner and the Mellon interests.
Union Improvement allocated all of the land lying between the Pittsburgh, Virginia and Charleston Railroad and the Monongahela River to industry and all of the land lying west of the railroad for a town site.
The Union Steel Company, of which W. H. Donner was president, broke ground for the construction of the wire plant on May 29, 1900. W. H. Farrell, who was widely experienced in the steel and wire business, was secured as manager of the plant.
The original wire plant consisted of two rod mills of the garrett or loop type, a wire drawing department, wire nail and wire galvanizing departments, varnished wire and barb wire departments. Many suspension bridges contain wire from the Donora plant.
One rod mill was started in September 1901 and the second late in 1902. The capacity of the two rod mills at that time was 1,200 tons in 24 hours.
The wire plant was operated by Union Steel under the direction of W. H. Farrell until March 1, 1903, when it was taken over by American Steel and Wire Company, which was organized in 1899 and became a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation in 1900.
Simultaneously with the construction of the wire plant, Mathews Woven Wire Fence Company constructed a plant for the manufacture of woven wire fencing. President and General Manager F. C. Mathews moved his plant from Illinois to Donora in 1902. It was absorbed by the Union Steel Company and formed the nucleus of the Woven Wire Fence and Wire Welded Fabric Department.
During the time the wire mill was operated by Union Steel, its requirement of steel billets was purchased in the open market. After the property was acquired by American Steel & Wire, the steel billets were secured from subsidiaries of United States Steel Corporation. This arrangement continued until 1907, when a 30-inch mill for the production of billets of suitable size was installed at the steel works.
In 1907, the wire drawing equipment was remodeled and modernized for increased and more efficient production.
World War I stimulated the demand for wire and rods, and to meet this demand, a third rod mill was installed at the wire mill in 1916.
In 1921, the first machines were installed for producing wire-welded fabric for reinforcement for concrete roads and concrete reinforcement in general.
The demand for wire and wire products continued to increase and to meet this demand two modern, electric motor-driven continuous rod mills and a continuous billet were installed in 1930-31, and the two original looping rod mills and the 30-inch billet mills were dismantled. In 1940, the wire drawing equipment was again modernized by the installation of continuous, individual motor-driven, wire-drawing machines.
Construction of two blast furnaces, 12 open-hearth furnaces, 40-inch blooming mill and accessories was started in 1900. These portions of the works began operation in the early part of 1905, producing basic ingots and slabs.
Construction was started by the Union Steel Company, which secured the services of Niven McConnell to design and construct the steel and blast furnace plant. However, before it was completed, it was taken over by Carnegie Steel Company, which became the first operator of the plant. A 30-inch billet mill was added in 1907. The entire plant was acquired by American Steel and Wire Company in November, 1908.
In 1913, another open-hearth furnace was added. A subsequent addition to the works was the duplexing plant, on which work was started in 1915.
After the original installation, the open-hearth furnaces were enlarged and increased in capacity from 60 tons to 110 tons per heat, and auxiliary equipment was improved to handle the increased tonnage. By 1921, the open-hearth capacity was roughly about 45,000 tons per month. As years went by, the blast furnaces and auxiliaries were modernized for greater efficiency and increased tonnage.
During the World War II years the entire plant facilities were used for the production of materials necessary in the huge war effort. Bullet core steel was rolled and bomb casing produced. Barb wire, welding rods, fabric for aircraft runways reinforcement and thousands of tons of rods and wire from which manufacturers produced rivets, bolts, tie rods, screws and countless other items for vehicles, armament, planes, ships and accessories for the armed services were manufactured in the Donora plant.
By 1950, the Donora mills were breaking records. On June 15, it was announced by Superintendent Harold Cope that the Donora mills broke three production records in May with 177,000 tons of ingots, 143,000 tons of billets and 84,108 tons of open-hearth steel. In addition, the blooming mill set a new high with 69,109 tons, and number one and number two rod mills set a record with 43,244 tons.
These accomplishments can be credited to the work force and its supervisors.
Prior to 1938, the steel works and the wire works were considered as separate units and each had a superintendent. The following served in that capacity:
Wire Works – 1901-04, W. H. Farrell; 1904-06, August Mann; 1906-09, Charles W. Lutz; 1909-12, F. D. Haynes; 1912-16, W. E. Acomb; 1916-28, August Mann; 1928-38, C. J. Brown.
Steel Works – 1902-05, Niven McConnell; 1905-07, A. A. Corey; 1908-12, Ephriam Bayard; 1912-29, J. B. Clark; 1929-38, A. Fred White.
In 1938, the steel and wire works were combined under one general superintendent. Those who served in that capacity were:
General superintendents – A. Fred White, 1938-42; L. F. McGlincy, 1942-44; L. J. Westhaver, 1943-49; Harold C. Cope, 1949-52; Umberto F. Corsini, 1953-59; Edward E. Caspell, 1959-67.
On June 16, 1915, engineering work was started for the construction of the Donora Zinc Works, which became the largest zinc works in the world. On hand as a young engineer was Mercer M. Neale, who drove the first stake in the ground upon which rose one of the most important links in the history of American industry. Later he headed the plant as superintendent.
On Sept. 21, the first refractories were made at the pottery. On Oct. 20, the first spelter was produced on No. 10 furnace, and on Dec. 23 of the same year, the first sulfuric acid unit was placed in operation. The other units of each department were completed in close order.
H. A. Barren was in charge of construction, and the plant was built in record time. The plant occupied 4,000 feet of land parallel to the Monongahela River on 45 acres of land. With this addition, American Steel and Wire holdings extended for three miles along the west bank of the Monongahela River. On Oct. 20, 1915, the Donora Zinc Works produced its first zinc.
R. D. Johnston was the first superintendent of the Donora Zinc Works and served in that capacity until April, 1925, when K. E. Miller became superintendent. Miller died in October of that year and Mercer M. Neale was appointed the new superintendent on Dec. 1. Neale, who arrived in Donora Sept. 30, 1909, was a noted civic leader. It was he who organized the Donora Steelworks Bank in 1912 with Andrew A. Patton as director. He also served on the school board.
Many of the Spanish-speaking people who settled in Donora came from Cherryvale, Kan., to work in the new zinc plant.
The chief by-product of the Donora Zinc Works was sulfuric acid. It was one of the most widely used chemical compounds and played a vital role in the national defense program, as it was an important raw material in the manufacture of explosives. It was also used in refining crude petroleum, pickling steel and recovering ammonia as ammonium sulfate. Cadmium and lead were also by-products.
Zinc’s value as a protective coating had long been known, and most of the Donora Zinc Works’ production was shipped to other mills of the company and subsidiaries of the corporation, where it was used to galvanize wire, nails, sheets and many other steel products.
Zinc played an important part in peace and wars. As a component of brass, it has been used in the manufacture of cartridges, shells, fuses and detonators. Alloyed with aluminum, magnesium and manganese, it has been used in the manufacture of shafts, propellers, bearings, castings and forging for airplane parts. Its protective coating properties have been utilized in galvanizing marine hardware, cables, pipes, tubes, canisters and drums for the Navy. Zinc die-castings have been used in the production of tanks.
Donora, therefore, was a very important part of the nation’s high standard of living in times of peace and a vital cog in the defense of the American way of life.
It wasn’t all work and no play for the employees of U. S. Steel as evidenced by articles in the March 1921 edition of Donora Works News.
One article reported on the activities of the Americo Club. These included an evening party and dance for members and guests, entertainment for visiting superintendents at the Grand Theatre to which all members were invited and entertainment for children on Saturday afternoons, although the latter was called off due to a drop in attendance.
Another article reported that the American Steel & Wire Company Band of 50 musicians, under the direction of W. R. Case, gave the fourth of a series of free winter concerts at the Grand Theatre. Due to limited seating capacity and standing room, a large number of people had to be turned away, the article said. Solos by Esther H. Howe from the Zinc Works superintendent’s office and selections from the Male Chorus and Colored Glee Club were featured. It was reported that the Colored Quartette had developed into a Glee Club with the following personnel: Director, L. Ramey; singers, F. Thornton, D. Robinson, M. Johnson, C. DeCoursey, L. J. Price; players, Chas. Bullet, banjo, Thos. May, mandolin, L. J. Price, guitar. Also reported was that the Orchestra was working on a special Easter program of sacred music to be presented at the Grand Theatre.
The extent of the company’s involvement and assistance in the lives of its employees was evidenced in an article that stated a baby clinic had been organized. Mrs. A. J. Vernon, a nurse, was put in charge of the clinic with headquarters in the Castner School. Hours set were 1 to 4 p.m. every Wednesday. Dr. Graves, Donora eye and ear specialist, was to be in attendance each week. In addition to physical examinations, a diet kitchen and exhibit rooms with free information from the state Health Board were open for mothers to use.
Another article noted that 34 men from three mills made the trip to Pittsburgh to secure their first papers for citizenship. It noted that they were attending Americanization classes held in the mill and encouraged others to take advantage of offers of assistance to become citizens. Other articles took note of the important happenings in the lives of the employees, such as marriages and births.
An example of the company’s civic-mindedness was an article on the Chamber of Commerce. It was reported that the following had been elected as directors: Ben. G. Binns, D. M. Anderson, J. P. Castner, J. B. Clark, Harry A. Cox, M. E. Faller, R. E. Hoopes, G. E. Koedel, A. J. O’Donnell, Dr. J. A. Sprowls and C. F. Thomas. The first forum meeting was held March 4 at which the subject was “Should the Chamber of Commerce back a Memorial Community Building?” According to the article, there was much interest in the discussion as it was “a topic in the hearts and minds of almost the entire community for some time.” Other forums were planned for regular intervals to discuss what was uppermost in the minds of members and suggestions turned in that would be of interest and appeal to every citizen of Donora.
Unfortunately, the beginning of the end of U. S. Steel’s contributions to Donora came on Nov. 7, 1957, when the Zinc Works furnaces were shut down, idling 300 men. The acid plant, however, remained in operation, as well as the American Steel and Wire Works.
In the 1960s, the final blow struck the community of Donora that had long prospered as the home of a steel plant that not only provided jobs but other benefits such as financial aid to the town and civic involvement.
In 1960, there were still 3,100 employees at the Donora plant. That was until June when the company announced it would shut down “temporarily” the steel-making facilities, one of the few existing “hand mills” in the country. The departments -- two blast furnaces, 13 open hearths, a blooming mill and its auxiliaries (billet yards, etc.) -- were shut down June 9-11, dropping 1,700 more employees from the payroll. Hopes that the shutdown would be temporary were dashed on July 24, 1962, when it was announced that the shutdown was permanent.
In the spring of 1963, crews began to dismantle the abandoned steel facilities. This task took 33 months, during which 50,000 tons of steel were removed.
On Feb. 8, 1966, U. S. Steel Corporation announced plans for the permanent suspension of all its operations in Donora. Shutdown operations began immediately for the barbed wire, nail mill and galvanizing departments. The acid production plant closed in October of 1966. The final shutdown came Oct. 28, 1967, when American Steel and Wire Co. announced the closing of the electric weld department and wire mills number one and two.
Leslie B. Worthington, U. S. Steel president at the time, said the decision to discontinue operations was made “with great reluctance because of our long association with the community and the efforts of our employees and their union representatives to help achieve maximum efficiency against overwhelming competitive odds.” Worthington said the Donora Works had been “a marginal operation for some time as a result of inroads of foreign competition and shifting of markets for its products.”
While the Donora Works once employed 5,000 persons, employment declined in the mid-1950s and only 825 were on the payroll at the time the shutdown was announced. Some of the employees were able to continue their employment in other facilities operated by the U. S. Steel Corporation such as Ambridge Works, Irvin Works, Clairton, Christie Park, Duquesne, Homestead, Edgar Thompson Works and Fairless Works. While many chose to still reside in Donora and commute to other jobs, those who transferred to the Fairless Works in the eastern part of the state or found work elsewhere in the country had to move from the community.
Census figures indicate the effect of the mill on the town’s population. In 1940, Donora had 13,180 residents; in 1950, 11,818; in 1960, 11,131. By 1970, it was down to 8,825. The decline continued: 1980 -- 7,524; 1990 -- 5,928; 2000 -- 5,653.
The loss of jobs, tax income and residents dealt a staggering blow to the community, but due to the resilience of its people and the foresight of its leaders, it was not a knockout.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Information for Donora’s history to this point was compiled by Ruth Ann Yatsko from The Donora Story by John P. “Moon” Clark in the Diamond Jubilee book; 20th Century History of the City of Washington and Washington County Pennsylvania and Representative Citizens by Joseph F. McFarland published in 1910; articles written in The Donora Herald-American golden jubilee edition, The Valley Independent and the Donora Works News March 1921 edition; research papers on Cement City and other information supplied for use in the book.