The front window of this museum boasts “Clean Air Started Here.” Well, that was only after this sleepy mill town on the Monongahela River experienced some very, very dirty air. In 1948, two large plants dominated Donora – the US Steel-owned Donora Zinc Works, once the largest such plant in the world, and the American Steel & Wire plant.
On October 26, 1948, a dense haze blanketed the town–this was a common occurrence, but unlike previous episodes, this fog failed to blow away. A temperature inversion in the valley trapped the noxious emissions from the two plants, and soon people began to fall ill.
Finally, the plants were shut down on October 31, just hours before a rainstorm helped clear out the smog. All told, roughly half of Donora’s population of 14,000 people had become sick and 20 people were dead from the smog. Fifty more people died soon after the smog lifted, and an untold number had their lives severely shortened by the episode.
The plants never admitted responsibility for the deaths, calling the smog the result of a “freak weather condition.” They paid out some small settlements to victims, and both plants remained open until 1966. Though this was not the first such episode of deadly industrial smog in the world, it did raise national awareness to the problems of air pollution, thus giving the museum its slogan.
In addition to accounts and artifacts from the 1948 disaster, inside the museum you can also see aerial photographs from the 1940s showing vast swaths of land downwind from the zinc plant utterly denuded from pollution. You can also hear the story of the young World War I veteran who returned home to work in the steel mill, only to be encased in molten metal in an industrial accident. Legend has it that during World War II, his accidental sarcophagus was dug up and the metal (as well as the body inside) was melted down and used to make artillery shells.
Despite its history of terrible air quality, Donora has a proud sporting tradition, producing such baseball stars as St. Louis Cardinals shortstop and Hall of Famer Stan Musial and both Ken Griffey, Sr. and Jr. Many bits of sports memorabilia, as well as other artifacts from the town’s history, are on display in this museum. The museum opened in October 2008 to mark the 60th anniversary of the smog.