Donora, Pennsylvania

11 February 1901

40°10'33" N / 79°51'41" W

~ Introduction ~

( Click the arrow in the buttons below for pronunciation. )

Donora   is a borough that was incorporated in 1901, in Washington County, Pennsylvania,
about 34 miles (55 km) south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River.

~ Maps ~

Donora, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Map: Copyright ©2015 by Marshall J. KATZ

1897 Map: Donora, PA
Township Map: Washington County, PA
Aerial View: Donora, PA
Street Map: Donora, PA

~ History ~

The history of the area dates back to 1814 when Charles DeHaas established a settlement by the name of "Pittsborough". This name later changed to "Columbia", and then to "West Columbia". In the summer of 1815, twenty houses were built, but that seems to have been the limit of the town. A post office was established in June, 1819, after which the prosperity of the place seems to have waned, and the dreams of Charles DeHaas of establishing a county seat for a river county were dissipated. In 1794, 1 mile (1.6 km) east of Donora, the Whiskey Insurrectionists held several meetings at Fells Church.

For the next few decades, lots were sold for very small sums. In May, 1899, the Union Improvement Company (pictured) purchased 152 acres from Bert W. Castner; seventy from the Robert Heslep heirs, 130 from Bradford Allen, and thirty from Alexander & Company.

The next year, this company laid out Donora, and when the lot sale was opened on 30 August 1900, there was a rush of people to the new town sites. On the day of this sale, there were only four houses on the site of the town with twelve persons residing therein. Three years later there were 1,000 buildings and 6,000 people.

The present town of Donora was incorporated in 1901 and J. N. Mullin was elected the first burgess. The community name, Donora, was derived from a combination of two names—businessman William Donner's name and Nora , the banker Andrew Mellon's wife. A trolley line opened in Donora on 15 December 1901, linking First and McKean and Fifteenth Street and Meldon. It was extended in 1911 to Black Diamond to connect to the Charleroi to Pittsburgh inter-urban trolley. The line was abandoned on May 5, 1953. In May, 1903, the village of West Columbia incorporated as a part of Donora.

Donora owes its growth to its industrial development. On 29 May 1900, the Union Steel Company broke ground, and became one of the largest plants of the kind in the United States. It occupied 300 acres along the river front, next owned by the United States Steel Corporation as the American Steel & Wire Company (pictured). By 1910, the population of Donora was 8,174. When new workers arrived and purchased properties, property values advanced to unbelievable heights, for example, two lots sold in the early 1800s for $500 were sold on 27 August 1915, to the Union Steel Company by Mrs. Rebecca Boyd for $10,000.

Early in Donora's history, agriculture, coal-mining, steel-making, wire-making, etc. prevailed and there was a surge of immigrants to fill available jobs in the factories. By 1920, the population was 14,131 and by 1940, 13,180.

By 1919, Donora had exceptional religious and social advantages with a large church representation and a synagogue. In addition, it had excellent public library, three theaters and six hotels. Its school system was one of the best with over 2,500 children in the schools—under the direction of 60 teachers. Donora had two first class newspapers, three banks and over 250 merchants supplying the needs of the buying public. There was over 40 societies to supply the yearning for social and fraternal interaction. Whenever one finds that sort of atmosphere, one is sure to find the right sort of a community in which to settle down.

In recent years, Donora was in a class of Western Pennsylvania towns and cities known collectively as the "Rust Belt," because of the demise of the once prolific steel industry. Donora, and other Mon Valley (Mon short for Monongahela) communities that have seen an economic re-emergence as a result of the increased economic activity in the area, primarily because of the newly emerging Marcellus Shale natural gas industry. In 2000, the population was 5,653.

The town continues to be a center for industry and manufacturing. On the site of the former steel mills now stands a large industrial park that is managed by MMIDA (Mid Mon Valley Industrial Development Authority). Major companies that have facilities in the Donora Industrial Park include: A-1 Babbit company, Apex N.A., Area Agency on Aging, Bergen Power Pipe Supports, BMA of Donora, HYTEC Inc., Dyno-Nobel Inc, Eastern Alloy, Eastern Hydraulic & Machine, Elizabeth Milling Corporation, Elliott Support Services, Glosser MFG, Industrial Nonferrous Casting Company, K-Z Tool Company, LaRoche Industries, McGrew Welding Fabrication, Metalife Resources, MIDA Inc., Mon Valley Child Care, Mon Valley Sewage Authority, Monessen Ambulance Service, Nitrous Oxide Corporation, Power & Industrial Supply, Nichols Miniatures, Pittsburgh Post Gazette Distribution Center, RAS Industries Inc., Regal Industries Inc.and Spartech Polycom.

Local government leaders hope that the natural gas boom will renew the prosperity that was once a trademark of the Mon Valley region. The Chamber of Commerce and a Renaissance organization are active studying ways to improve the town and environs. One constant has always been the resilience Donora's citizens.

~ 1948 Donora Smog ~

The famous October 1948 Donora smog was a historic air inversion of killer smog, comprised of sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, hydrogen fluoride and other poisonous emissions from U.S. Steel's Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant.

The fog started building up in Donora on 26 October 1948 and by the following day, it was causing coughing and other signs of respiratory distress for many residents of the community in the Monongahela River valley. Many of the illnesses and deaths were initially attributed to asthma.

The smog continued until it rained on 31 October, by which time 20 residents of Donora had died, they were: Ivan CEH - Age: 70; Mrs. Barbara CHINCHAR - Age: 58; Taylor G. CIRCLE - Age: 82; John CUNNINGHAM - Age: 63; Bernardo DI SANZI - Age: 67; Michael DORONE - Age: 70; William GARDNER - Age: 63; Mrs. Susan GNORA - Age: 62; Neilson HILL - Age: 52; Emma HOBBS - Age: 55; Ignatz HOLLOWITI - Age: 64; Jeannie KIRKWOOD - Age: 70; Marcel KRASKA - Age: 67; Andrew ODELGA - Age: 69; Mrs. Ida ORR - Age: 55; Gustine POLCHAK - Age: 60; Peter STARKOVICH - Age: 67; Perry STEVENS - Age: 55, and Sowka TRUBALIS - Age: 66?.

Approximately a third to one half of the town's population of 14,000 residents had been sickened. Another 50 residents died of respiratory causes within a month after the incident. Even ten years after the incident, mortality rates in Donora were significantly higher than those in other communities nearby. Sixty years later, the incident was described by The New York Times as "one of the worst air pollution disasters in the nation's history".

The event is often credited for helping to trigger the clean-air movement in the United States, whose crowning achievement was the Clean Air Act of 1970, which required the United States Environmental Protection Agency to develop and enforce regulations to protect the general public from exposure to hazardous airborne contaminants.

Furthermore, the incident started the slow death of Donora that continues to this day. Donora's business district is empty, and full of crumbling and decayed buildings. U.S. Steel closed both plants by 1966.

Today, Donora has about 5,653 inhabitants (2000) and is currently trying to revitalize itself. It is home to the Donora Smog Museum which tells the impact of the Donora Smog on the air quality standards enacted by the federal government in subsequent years. The Chamber of Commerce are active and a Renaissance organization is studying ways to improve the town and environs.

~ 1948 Smog Newsreel ~
0:35 [minutes:seconds ]
Source: YouTube - British Pathé

~ Donora's Cement City ~

Donora is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its famous neighborhood known as "Cement City," built using a technique championed by Thomas Edison.

The Edison home building technique was to build a house completely out of pre-formed and poured concrete. This method was used elsewhere throughout the United States. The homes were built as employee housing for employees of the Wire and Steel Mill in the early 1900s.

In two years—1916 and 1917—to meet the housing famine faced by the influx of mill workers, 100 Prairie style units (a total of 80 buildings) were constructed almost entirely of poured-in-place concrete.

"Cement City" is significant for industry, and community planning and development as an intact example of large scale, early twentieth-century, western Pennsylvania company housing. It is also significant for architecture as an example of innovative design to mass produce affordable, sturdy, sanitary, fireproof housing. The name "Cement City" is actually a misnomer—neither cement or a city—the houses are actually built of concrete.

Concrete as a building material has been in existence for centuries, however, it was the invention of Portland cement that made it a desirable building material with superior strength and durability.

This cohesive and compact group of two-story houses is located on a sloping 8.8 acre parcel one-half mile southwest of, and overlooking, the central business district of Donora.

~ Cement City ~
3:13 [minutes:seconds ]
Source: YouTube - corinneSINCEsoli

~ Thomas Edison's Building Concept ~
3:10 [minutes:seconds].
Source: YouTube - Heinz History Center HCAP Videos

Above Sources (portions):
A History of Washington County, PA By: E. R. Forrest (1926)
Donora Historical Society & Smog Museum
Heinz History Center HCAP Videos
NOAA Oceanservice Education
Wikimedia Commons
YouTube - British Pathé
YouTube - corinneSINCEsoli
YouTube - Heinz History Center HCAP Videos

~ Early Jewish Settlers ~

From all of the records available, a man by the name of ALTMAN came to Donora in 1901 and he was the first Jewish person to make his home here. It did not take long before a few others followed and as the community increased in size, a movement was undertaken to organize a congregation and in 1904, the Congregation Ohav Sholom came into existence.

It is noteworthy that a handful of Jewish people made quite a contribution to the community, even though they were in the minority. They were able to make their power felt through the mind and education, which has always been their forte, but also this combination made other groups successful in Donora society at large. In every phase of activity in which our coreligionists have engaged, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, whether in business or civic life, that direction was more than a credible one to our brethren in the Mon Valley region. People and their faith, maintain the excellent records as citizens of the United States of America.

By 1919, there were 300 Jews living in Donora. Only a few Jews live in Donora today (2015).

Sources (portions):
Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center
The Jewish Criterion - Vol. 51 No. 22 - 25 July 1919
Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries

~ Notable Citizens ~

(Click the images below to view a larger image.)

Following are a few notable citizens born in Donora:

Dr. Dorval Carter (b. Donora, 1935), was a compassionate and dedicated physician, he never stopped thinking about the patients in his care. He attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., to continue to pursue music, but early on understood life as a musician would be difficult, so he switched his major to chemistry. In 1956, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa in chemistry from Howard, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston as part of the Army Medical Service Corps. Upon completing military service, he returned to Howard and received his medical degree in 1962. He moved to Chicago where he started residency at Cook County Hospital—his practice and his reputation, being a skilled and caring physician grew—dedicated to improving quality of care for women. He worked at Cabrini Hospital as chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department from 1976 - 1996, then joined St. Anthony Hospital in a similar capacity. He also taught at Northwestern University's College of Medicine. In 1990, he was appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley to serve as the commissioner and officer of the Illinois Medical District. As a tribute to the doctor's work, St. Anthony's maternity center was renamed the Dr. Dorval and Vivian Carter Family Birthing Center. He also became the first recipient of the lifetime achievement award at St. Anthony's. Dr. Dorval Carter died in 24 February 2007 at age 72.

Devra Davis, Ph.D., M.P.H. (b. Donora, 7 June 1946), is internationally known for work on disease prevention and environmental health factors, a President Clinton appointee to the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board from 1994-1999. She was Founding Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology, the first of its kind in the world, and presently acts as President of Environmental Health Trust, focusing on man-made health threats. She lectures at American and European universities and her research has been covered in major scientific publications as well as on major media outlets like CNN, CSPAN, CBC, BBC, and public radio. Her attention is focused on the health hazards of exposures to man-made sources of electromagnetic radiation, especially those from wireless devices such as cell phones, iPads and antennas and cell towers powering these devices—all emitting radio-frequency/microwave radiation. Her career has spanned all areas of academia, public policy, and scientific research. As Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services, she counseled leading officials of the USA, United Nations, European Environment Agency, Pan American Health Organization, World Health Organization, and World Bank.

Florence "Flo" E. Dunyak (Gwyer-Gantt) (b. Donora, 1940), was Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs in the NSC—for 30 years—under seven Presidents: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bush. In 1963, she accepted a position with the National Security Council (NSC) at the White House as advisor, reporting to President—John F. Kennedy, then later, to Lyndon B. Johnson. By 1968, she was working in the White House Situation Room. Next, she reported to Richard M. Nixon as secretary to Henry Kissinger. She travelled many times on Air Force One, to 58 countries, 25 states, two U.S. territories and worked at the Presidential retreats. She personally met many Heads of State, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Princes and a King—to name a few: Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, King Fahd, HRH Prince Bandar and Premier Deng Xiaoping. With President Bush, she had an audience with Pope John Paul II and also met Mother Theresa. After 30 years of service, she retired from in 1993 and was presented with a medal for "Special Award for Exceptional Service" by President Bush.

Josephine Antoinette Estill (b. Donora, 25 April 1921), known as "Jo Estill", was a singer, singing voice specialist and voice researcher. Estill is best known for her research and the development of Estill Voice Training, a program for developing vocal skills based on deconstructing the process of vocal production into control of specific structures in the vocal mechanism. She sang professionally on the radio in Pittsburgh from 1939-1940, and 1940-1947 in Hollywood. After marrying, she toured Europe in 1953. In 1969, she received a BA in Liberal Arts from Colorado College, and in 1971, she received an MA in Music Education from Case Western Reserve University. From 1972-1979, she was appointed Instructor in Voice in the Department of Otolaryngology, at the Upstate NY Medical Center. Between 1980 and 1984, Jo enrolled in the City University of New York PhD graduate in Speech and Hearing. She completed all of her PhD course work, but did not submit her dissertation. In 1991, she founded the "Estill Voice Training Systems." On 10 September 2004, Estill was awarded an Honorary Doctorate, Doctor of Letters (LittD), from the University of East Anglia. She died on 9 December 2010.

Arnold A. Galiffa (b. Donora, 29 January 1927), was a quarterback for the National Football League and Canadian Football League.

He won 11 varsity letters at West Point and served with distinction as an officer in the Korean War.

He was a former Army All-America quarterback and one of the most celebrated athletes in West Point history.

He was drafted into the National Football League (NFL) in 1950, Round 18 and Pick 225. He played in the NFL for the New York Giants (1953) and the San Francisco 49ers (1954).

He then played in the Canadian Football League for the BC Lions (1955), then for the Toronto Argonauts (1956). He died on 5 September 1978.

George Kenneth "Ken" Griffey, Jr. (b. 21 November 1969), nicknamed "Junior" and "The Kid", is a former professional baseball outfielder who played 22 years in Major League Baseball (MLB) for three teams (1989-2010). He is the son of former MLB player Ken Griffey, Sr. He spent most of his career with the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds and a short stint with the Chicago White Sox. A 13-time All-Star, he was one of the most prolific home run hitters in baseball history. His 630 home runs rank as the sixth-most in MLB history. Griffey was also an exceptional defender and won 10 Gold Glove Awards in center field. He is tied with the record for most consecutive games with a home run (8 games).

Griffey is one of only 29 players in baseball history to date to have appeared in Major League games in four different calendar decades. In 2013, he became the seventh person inducted into the Mariners' Hall of Fame.

Kenneth "Ken" Griffey Sr. (b. Donora; 10 April 1950), is a former professional baseball outfielder who was a member of the famed Big Red Machine. He is the father of former professional outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr.

Griffey joined the Cincinnati Reds 25 August 1973, playing in only 25 games, but batted .384, with three homers. The next season, 88 games. In 1975, he had a .305 batting average, four home runs and 46 RBIs. In 1976, he came just short of winning the batting title. He finished with a career high .336 and was a member of the Reds wining their second World Series title, in 1976. He also played for the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves and the Seattle Mariners. He didn't play in the 1990 World Series, but he got a ring anyway. When he retired after 19 seasons (1,997 games), he compiled a lifetime batting average of .296, with 152 home runs and 859 RBI. He was also the Most Valuable Player of the 1980 All-Star Game. In 2004, Griffey was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.

Manuel L. Ibanez, Ph.D. (b. Donora), was a teacher of biology and biochemistry at universities such as Bucknell, UCLA, LSU and University of New Orleans. In 1989, Dr. Ibanez became President at Texas A&M University and served in that capacity until 1998, when he retired. Through the United Nations, Dr. Ibanez taught the use of radioisotopes in agriculture throughout Central and South America. He also participated in a National Science Foundation expedition on the Amazon River discovering a new type of beetle that was named in his honor. In 1994, Dr. Ibanez was appointed by President Bill Clinton as a regent at the Smithsonian Institute (in the photo, Dr. Ibanez holds an antique phonograph). Dr. Ibanez is also a member of the Texas-Israel Exchange Board, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Joint Council on Food and Agricultural Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Ibanez still teaches at the local community college where he lives in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Stanley Frank "Stan" Musial (b. Donora, 21 November 1920 as Stanisław Franciszek Musiał), was a professional baseball player and Navy veteran of World War II. "Stan" Musial was a Major League Baseball (MLB) outfielder and first baseman on the St. Louis Cardinals for 22 seasons, from 1941 through 1963. Nicknamed "Stan the Man", he is widely considered to be one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. He compiled 3,630 career hits, ranking fourth all-time and first in a career spent with only one team. With 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 on the road, he also is considered to be the most consistent hitter of his era. He hit 475 home runs during his career, was named the National League's Most Valuable Player (MVP) three times, and won three World Series championship titles.

He shares the MLB record for the most All-Star Games played (24) with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. Musial was a first-ballot inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969 and also selected to the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame—in the inaugural class of 2015. He died on 19 January 2013.

Brig. Gen. William C. Jones, USAF (b. Donora), was appointed to the U. S. Air Force Academy in 1960 and received his commission as a second lieutenant in 1964. While at the academy, he continued in track and lettered four years and was the team captain his senior year. He trained as a fighter pilot 1964 - 1967 and was promoted to 1st Lt. After F-105 training, he was assigned to the 333rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, Takhli, Thailand, where he flew 189 combat missions, 123 over North Vietnam. After Vietnam, Lt. Jones returned stateside to various bases and rose through the ranks: Captain (1971), Major (1976), Lt. Colonel (1982), Colonel (1992) and Brigadier General (1998). He retired in 2001 as the Assistant Adjutant General for Air at the Virginia Air National Guard Headquarters. He is a command pilot with over 6,000 flying hours in the T-33, T-37, T-38, F-102, F-105, F-106, A-7, C-26 and F-16 aircraft, including over 562 combat hours. He numerous major awards and decorations including the Distinguished Flying Dross, Bronze Star and Vietnam Service Medal. After retirement, he was a corporate pilot, a high school track coach, participates in a community band and returned to Donora in 2011 to serve as the Grand Marshal of the Monongahela Valley Veteran's Day parade.

"Deacon" Dan Towler (b. Donora, 6 March 1928), was a National Football League (NFL) running back for the Los Angeles Rams 1950 - 1955 and was the NFL leading rusher in 1952. He graduated from Washington & Jefferson College. The football statistics website Cold, Hard Football Facts calls Towler "the greatest running back you don't know," and "a bright, shining star who lit up the NFL for an oh-so-brief, but spectacular, three-year period unlike any before or since. For a three-year period in the early 1950s, Towler was the closest thing the NFL has ever produced to an unstoppable ball carrier. Over the three seasons 1951 - 1953, he had 434 attempts for 2,627 yards, 6.05 YPA, and 23 touchdowns...incredible statistics, especially back in the 12-game-season era."

After retiring from football, Towler was named pastor of the Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church in Pasadena, California; he was also a chaplain at California State University at Los Angeles and president of the Los Angeles County Board of Education. He died on 1 August 2001 at age 73.

Judge Reggie Barnett Walton (b. Donora, 8 February 1949), is a federal judge appointed by George H. W. Bush on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. He was the presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court until 20 May 2015. With a football scholarship, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from West Virginia State University in 1971, then a law degree from The American University, Washington College of Law, in 1974. Judge Walton is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

Walton was an Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia 1981-1989 and 1991-2001. He was associate director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In 2001, he was nominated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush and confirmed. In 2004, President Bush appointed him to chair the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. In May 2007, Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. appointed him to a seat on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—his term ended May 18, 2015.

Sources (portions):
Dr. Dorval Carter - Donora Historical Society
Devra Davis -
Florence "Flo" E. Dunyak - Donora Historical Society
Josephine Antoinette Estill - Wikipedia
Arnold Galiffa - Wikipedia
Ken Griffey -
Ken Griffey Jr. - Wikipedia
Manuel L. Ibanez, Ph.D. - Donora Historical Society
Brig. Gen. William C. Jones, USAF - Donora Historical Society
Stan Musial -
"Deacon" Dan Towler - Donora Historical Society
Judge Reggie B. Walton - Washington Post/Wikipedia

This page is hosted at no cost to the public by JewishGen, Inc., a non-profit corporation.
If you feel there is a benefit to you in accessing  this site, your JewishGen-erosity is appreciated.

Compiled and created by:
Marshall J. KATZ, USA

with assistance from:

Donora Borough official web site
Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center
The Jewish Criterion - Vol. 51 No. 22 - 25 July 1919
Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries
The Jewish Criterion - Vol. 104 No. 20 - 15 September 1944
Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries
The Jewish Criterion - Vol. 106 N. 19 - 7 September 1945
Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries
YouTube - British Pathé
YouTube - corinneSINCEsoli
YouTube - Heinz History Center HCAP Videos
and the following:

JewishGen members/descendants and
contributors of Donora Jewish families:


Updated: 21 September 2020

Copyright ©2015
Marshall J. KATZ
All rights reserved

Back to KehilaLinks KehilaLinks Top of page JewishGen Back to JewishGen

Top of Page

Visitors since: 01 February 2015