THE WAY IT WAS

 

 

By ROMAN E. KOEHLER

 

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The late Roman E. Koehler, who was the first editor of The Donora American in the early 1900s, recalled the early days of the community in a talk presented to the Donora Lions Club in 1951. Excerpts of  his recollections follow.)

 

It has always been to me a matter of regret that I was not present at the first lot sale Aug. 30, 1900, which was the real beginning of our community.  I have been told by those who were there about the crowds, the special trains, the bands and refreshments, also about the scramble to purchase desirable lots.

 

It was my good fortune, however, to be there when the First Addition to Donora went on sale.  In the first sale only those lots lying south of Eighth Street were included.  The First Addition took in the section lying between Eighth and Twelfth streets.  By this time, September 1901, real estate values had increased so much and investors made such handsome profits, there was a tremendous demand for ownership in the new plot.  Some would-be purchasers appeared on the scene the night before and remained beside a lot stake until the opening gun was fired the next morning at 10.  Then the lot ticket was removed and a rush made to the land office to arrange for the purchase.  In many instances there were two or more men camped on the same lot, and there were a few battles over possession of the lot ticket.

 

It is hard now to realize the tremendous activities going on during the first two years. Streets were being paved, and hundreds of buildings, both dwellings and mercantile blocks, being erected.  Those were the days before auto trucks were available and all hauling of materials was by horse-drawn wagons.  In a radio broadcast just a few years ago Lowell Thomas announced that, according to population, Donora had more automobiles per person than any other community in the world.  I am just as sure that if statistics were available for 1901 they would show that Donora had more horses per capita than any other community.

 

I have vivid recollections of the mud in those early days.  Thompson, McKean and Meldon avenues were brick-paved, but there were no sidewalks anywhere.  Everyone wore overshoes or boots.  Every time it rained, mud washed down the hillsides onto the paved streets.

 

About that time the leading eating place in Donora was a restaurant run by Mrs. Luker on the second floor of the first Spragg building on McKean Avenue near Eighth Street.  The building was three stories high and covered two full lots.  In the dining room were two large tables - one with a tablecloth for white-collar patrons and the other bare for teamsters and other laborers who came dressed in working clothes.  The food was excellent, but the air was usually tainted with the odor of horses.  One might reasonably infer that, owing to the scarcity of houses, some of these men slept where their animals slept.

 

PROMINENT MEN

Among the men most prominent in the creation of the new town was John G. Parke Jr., who was employed by Union Improvement Company to lay out streets and alleys and by Union Steel Company to survey the industrial site between the railroad and river.  In addition to his professional work, he found time to take an active part in civic affairs.  He served as a member of both the first borough council and first school board.  Mr. Parke also was active in fraternal affairs and was instrumental in having a lodge of Free and Accepted Masons founded in Donora in January 1903.  He served as first master of the new lodge.

 

Many are familiar with the gift to Donora of the Community Center building by William H. Donner. Probably many are not aware that, as president of Union Improvement Company, Mr. Donner rendered previous important services to community welfare.  At the end of Donora's first year, there were several hundred children of school age and no funds in the school treasury to provide for their needs.  Mr. Donner anticipated this situation and when the time came for schools to open, on the hill at Second Street was an eight-room brick school building ready for use.  When financially able, the school district took title to the property.

 

By the time the next year had come, a much larger additional building was needed. Again, Mr. Donner came to the rescue.  The Castner School on McKean Avenue between Ninth and Tenth streets was erected.  The school district owned one-half of the building and Mr. Donner the other half.

 

Another citizen active in municipal and civic affairs was Capt. Gustav Schaaf, the first borough assessor.  When Donora was founded he had recently returned with the famous fighting Tenth Regiment from service in the Philippines.  He had served as captain of Company A, made up almost entirely of men from Monongahela and vicinity.  He organized the Sons of Veterans in Donora and when World War I broke out and there was fear of riots and sabotage, he became captain of the Home Defense Guard, a group of about 60 local men who were commissioned by the State of Pennsylvania to act in an emergency.  Capt. Schaaf took great interest in the group and taught them to march and drill in a creditable manner.

 

In the big mill strike of 1919, the Home Defense Guard was alerted an many of the members kept loaded riot guns in their offices or other places of work or business, ready to act on an instant's notice.

 

FLU, SMALLPOX EPIDEMICS

When the flu epidemic struck Donora, the Home Defense Guard justified its existence. Some served at the emergency hospital in the Slovak Hall.  Others patrolled the streets to break up the assembling of groups, while others visited every home in Donora to located victims who were not able to report their situation.  In many homes they found some dead, others dying, many needing immediate medical treatment.  There were not enough doctors in Donora who, working night and day, could visit all who needed help.

The municipal officials of the new and rapidly growing community often had problems that had to be solved in haste.  One such was that of the Board of Health when a case of smallpox was discovered.  The victim was what is commonly called a floater, a man with no relatives or friends.  At that time there was a local doctor, Dr. Speck, who formerly served as physician and surgeon on ocean-going vessels.  He was slow in developing a practice and the Board of Health made an arrangement with him to build and furnish a two-room pest house just outside the north borough line.  Both doctor and patient lived there during recovery and quarantine.  After recovery, the patient was given an antiseptic bath, new outfit of clothes and discharged.  It was the intention of the Board of Health to burn the pest house and furnishings.  Before that could be done, the former smallpox patient broke into his old home and spent the night there.  Then thieves broke into the pest house and stole the furnishings.  A few weeks later, there was an epidemic of smallpox at Victory Hill.

 

AIRPLANE INVENTOR

Among the many unusual characters in Donora was Professor Schick.  In addition to his professing to be a musician, he also claimed to be an inventor. One day he appeared at the American newspaper office and invited the editor to accompany him to the basement of the Castner School where he had on exhibition his latest invention - a flying machine. That was in 1903, three years before the Wright Brothers made their flight at Kitty Hawk. The Schick airplane was to be powered by what appeared to be a set of clock works built into a cigar box.  It had a propeller in front, wings on the side and a tail piece.  It had not yet been developed far enough to rise from the ground and was kept aloft by being suspended from a 15-ft. wooden pole with a weight on one end sufficient to balance the weight of the airplane.  This, in turn, was supported by an upright post three feet high.  The demonstration started when the professor wound up the works inside the box, let go and the propeller began to revolve.  Then the plane started moving in circles.  Everything went fine until the speed began to rock the upright post.  As the weighted end came around to a point opposite the editor the whole contraption upset and the metal weight dropped on his feet, smashing three toes.  In addition to the claim of being Donora's first editor could be added the first person in the world to receive accident insurance compensation as a result of being injured by a flying machine.

 

SOCIAL LIFE

Social life in Donora started early and with distinction.  Soon after the First National Bank building was finished, the Donora Club was organized and took over the third floor. The building extended from McKean Avenue to Linden Alley.  A large dance hall took up half the space, and the other half was used for rest rooms, card rooms, billiards and pool.  The walls and ceiling of the ballroom were painted by Paul Nordstrom, a noted artist who resided in the community.  The dances and parties were full dress affairs and attracted guests from Pittsburgh, Uniontown and other areas.

 

Another social club came into existence about 1908.  Charles Lutz, superintendent of the Wire Works, was generally credited as being the promoter.  It was known as the Commercial Club.  A second-floor, five-room apartment was leased in a building near the Bank of Donora.  The word was passed out that it was to be a booster organization, sort of a Chamber of Commerce, but you could say that with one eye shut.  Suitable furniture was installed, consisting chiefly of what in a hotel would be called a bar, a large ice cooler, round tables to seat eight persons and cards that could have been used to play canasta (only there was no game called canasta then).  Meetings were held seven nights a week, starting around 8:30 and lasting until near daylight.

 

RIVER TRAFFIC

In the beginning of Donora, river traffic was quite different from that of today.

At first, a ferry used to ply back and forth between Donora and Webster.  If there were only three or four passengers, the ferrymen rowed them across in a rowboat.  For horses and wagons, a large flat-bottom scow was used.  A steel cable was stretched across the river and ran through pulleys on the side of the barge.  It was propelled across the river by means of a slotted stick hooked over the cable, and the men pulled the barge by heaving on this stick.  Another ferry was located at Bamford.

 

There was big excitement when the showboat tied up at the ferry landing and announced its presence with music on the steam calliope.  The showboat was a big barge towed by a river steamer.  There were plenty of boats towing barges of coal, but there were also fancy side-wheelers that carried passengers and freight to all local points between Pittsburgh and Morgantown.  The Pennsylvania Railroad operated only as far as Brownsville, and several families moving from further south, came to Donora by packet boats.  Weekends in 1901 were rather dull for men in Donora who had not yet been able to move their families here, and an overnight trip to Morgantown was quite popular.

Trains became another way of transportation.  There were about nine trains in each direction every day.  The old wooden station was a favorite gathering place to watch the trains come and go and to see who was going to Pittsburgh or returning.

 

One of the daily commuters was Charles Latta, who served as city messenger.  For a small fee he would shop in Pittsburgh for the residents.  He would use the baggage checking system to bring back the numerous items.  His headquarters was at Stewart's News Stand, and he performed a valuable service for the community.

 

BUILDING A BRIDGE

During the early part of 1902, Squire A. W. Kelly of Webster was in Greensburg on a business matter and in a conversation with Congressman E. E. Robbins commented that his section of Westmoreland County was generally ignored by officials except at election time when they were asked to get out the vote.  When asked by Robbins what he wanted, he said the inspiration came to him just at that moment to say that he wanted a free bridge to Donora.  Robbins made inquiries into the merits of such a proposal and encouraged Kelly to pursue it.

 

Upon his return to Webster, at a conference in the flour mill office, Kelly spurred the interest of John Vogle, hotel proprietor, and A. A. Perkins, flour mill owner.  Petitions were drawn up for the appointment of viewers and circulated for signatures.  Kelly and Vogel, hoping to get the support of Donorans, approached George W. Allen, who was immediately interested and became an ardent worker in the cause.

While the idea was popular on both sides of the river, it was a six-year struggle before a contract was awarded.  Open and secret influences were brought to bear upon those who were to pass upon the project officially.  A bill passed by Congress authorizing the construction was followed by three bills extending the time for accomplishing this.  Two boards of joint county viewers approved the petition, four county judges were concerned in the affair, and four boards of county commissioners considered the awarding of the contract.  While Attorney Robbins looked after the bridge interests in Westmoreland County, Attorney A. J. Morgan represented the Washington County interests.  The circulation of petitions to determine the necessity of the bridge began July 11, 1902, in both counties.  On Sept. 3, 1902, Washington County Court sustained the objection of county commissioners that it would not be legal to appoint viewers until receiving the consent of the U.S. government to cross the river, which was a navigable stream. On Dec. 8, 1902, Rep. E. F. Acheson introduced a bill in Congress empowering the counties to erect a bridge, regulating its height, distance between piers and requiring signal lights in accordance with rules governing river commerce.  Congress approved the bill Feb. 2, 1903.

 

On July 30, 1903, a public meeting for the citizens of Donora was held in the borough building to arrange for representatives to attend the meeting of viewers and to present evidence of the necessity of a bridge.  After the meeting was called to order by J. N. Mullin, George W. Allen was elected chairman and Myron V. Stewart, secretary. Appointed to represent Donora's interest at the meeting of viewers were George W. Allen, Wm. H. Binns, G. A. Van Pelt, Herbert Ailes and Roman E. Koehler.

A meeting on Aug. 18 at the Union Station in Webster was an exciting affair.  A large delegation from Monessen arrived on the steamboat John O. Watson, accompanied by bands, and demonstrated. They were accompanied by an attorney who requested the viewers to consider locating the bridge at Monessen instead of Webster.  After hearing arguments by the attorneys, the board ruled against the Monessen request and asked the delegation to withdraw.  After the Webster session, the board of viewers came to Donora where they made a favorable recommendation.

 

While it would seem that it would be smooth sailing for the project, that was not the case. While approval was given by Washington County, Westmoreland County disapproved the findings of the viewers and grand jury based on objections from Monessen citizens.

Undaunted, Kelly and Vogle started a new round of petitions.  This time they secured signatures of many citizens in Monessen who were formerly opposed.  The previous process had to be repeated, but this time the result was favorable. The next stumbling block came after bids were taken.  Washington County commissioners refused to sign a contract because no arrangement had been made for the funds to cover the cost.  On Feb. 1, 1906, a special bill was introduced in the state legislature authorizing counties to issue bonds for building bridges.  Approval was given March 5, 1906.  After other complications and delays, a contract was awarded on Jan. 23, 1908, and a bond issue of $100,000 was authorized to cover Washington County's share of the cost.  The first load of materials for the bridge arrived on March 23, 1908, and the grand opening was held Dec. 5, 1908.

 

CURB SERVICE

Before a water system was completed in Donora the citizens depended on drilled wells for their home supply.  Someone had a well drilled near the curb on Sixth Street, opposite the First National Bank, and an iron pump was installed to which was attached a chain and tin cup.  There were many who took advantage of this free service.  The more dainty ones brought their own cups.

 

SPORTS STARS

Donorans have always been noted for their inclination for wholesome sports.  Many who grew up in Donora became classified as sports stars.  Robert J. Coulson was the first to win renown by securing a regular berth in the National Baseball League.  He was honored with a special day at Forbes Field and was presented an engraved gold watch in a ceremony at home plate at which Honus Wagner participated.

 

TRIBUTE TO IMMIGRANTS

Around 1900, immigration from Europe to the U.S. was at its peak, and a special census in 1902 showed that Donora received its full share, many who could not speak English. As to the question whether immigration is a good thing for either the immigrant or the country that receives them, the answer can be found in Donora.  Note the fine, comfortable homes now owned by those first comers and their descendants.  Look at a list of their names in the directories of the sciences and professions, as educators and professors in our schools and colleges, in business, as stars in sports, as officials serving in the U.S. Congress, state legislature, borough council and school district.  To these good folks who came to us from foreign shores during the past century, as a native citizen I now pay them a sincere tribute.

 

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Roman E. Koehler, who was born in 1876 and died in 1967, began his newspaper career at age 13 at a newspaper in Reynoldsville where he learned the printing trade.  He was the first editor of The Donora American, which began as a weekly newspaper April 19, 1901.  During what he called a vacation from The American, he worked at The Donora Daily News, which was published for several years before fading out of existence.  Sid Wilson, who started with a job printing plant purchased with a loan from Dr. H. T. Billick of Monongahela, decided to start the daily newspaper.  The project was not a financial success, and Dr. Billick eventually foreclosed on the printing plant and took it over.  He hired George Gordon as editor and manager, but he quit suddenly. In the emergency he promoted Koehler, who was 18 at the time, to editor, business manager and reporter.  He ran the paper for about a year and a half, managing to make the business pay its way.  Dr. Billick found a buyer for the paper, and the new owner installed a cylinder press.  In a short time, however, it ceased publication.

 

James D. Campbell III of Landenberg, PA, a grandson who submitted Koehler's recollections, noted that he has fond memories of his summertime visits to his grandparents at 445 Fifth Street and that he hopes that the present residents of Donora cherish their town as much as his family did.)