1948 Smog

"Before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, there was Donora." 
-- W. Michael McCabe (1998)
NEWS FLASH 1948...

Poison Fog 1948

As the week of October 24, 1948 began, the nearly 14,000 people of Donora paid little attention to the dense heavy fog covering the town.  The cool to cold autumn nights combined with warm water from the Monongahela river and smoke from the local steel mill, namely the zinc works, blast furnace and open hearth, as well as thousands of coal furnaces in local homes, would typically limit visibility until afternoon (see photo above).  As the week wore on, residents began to realize this fog was anything but typical.  By Thursday, October 28, streetlights were on during mid-day (see photo below) and people walking the streets were struggling to find their way.  Soon, many elderly people began to complain of breathing difficulty, thousands were ill, and houseplants began to shrivel.  Then, people began to die. 
Donora at noon
Donora physicians worked around the clock, treating victims as best they could against a mysterious pathogen.  The Donora Board of Health set up an emergency aid station and temporary morgue in the basement of the Community Center.  Volunteer firemen felt their way door to door, administering oxygen and attempting to get people help.  Management at the mill refused to believe or admit that the waste they were emitting caused the problem; after all, it was the same thing they had been doing for over thirty years.
In less than three days, hundreds of people fell sick, twenty-one people were dead, along with dozens of animals.  Who knows how many more followed in the weeks, months and years to come.  On October 31, rains finally dispersed the killer fog, but leaving the nation in shock.  The dead and sick were not only from Donora but also from the neighboring communities of Webster and Sunnyside that were down wind and across the river.
The Federal, State and Local governments, along with numerous universities and scientists, conducted an investigation.  Sulfur dioxide emissions from U.S. Steel's Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant were frequent occurrences in Donora. What made the 1948 event more severe was a temperature inversion, in which a mass of warm, stagnant air was trapped in the valley.  The pollutants in the air mixed with fog to form a thick, yellowish, acrid smog that inhibited the normal process where the sun would burn off the fog.  This smog hung over Donora for five days. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in the inversion and continued to accumulate until rain ended the weather pattern.
The killer fog introduced America to a new term: "smog" - a combination of naturally occurring fog and industrial pollution.  The 1948 Donora Smog made the world aware of the dangers of unchecked pollution.  The tragic and heroic events of that October weekend helped shape the environmental movement that was to follow.
The 1948 Smog event is the foundation of the Donora Historical Society's Smog Museum.  On occasion, we get inquiries from around the world as other countries in Asia and Europe face the same situations we did over 65 years ago.
Countless newspaper and magazine articles, as well as books and television programs have documented what unfolded in Donora in 1948.  Because of all the industrialization that was taking place in America at that time, an event was eventually going to occur somewhere that would be the impetus for realizing the necessity for a cleaner environment.  That event occurred in Donora.  As tragic as it was, it did lay the groundwork for cleaner air for everyone.  Our slogan "Clean Air Started Here" is one that Donora is very proud of and a testament to the people who gave their lives for this cause.
In 1950, a 21-year-old German man named Guenter Kunert took pen to paper and wrote a poem about the 1948 Smog titled, "The Song of a Small Town."  For him, what took place in Donora in 1948 paralleled his struggles of surviving WWII as a young German-Jew whose relatives were exterminated in concentration camps, and what was taking shape politically in Berlin at that time.  Later, this poem was translated by Penn State University languages professor Dr. Manfred Keune and presented to the Donora Historical Society, and Guenter Kunert would go on to become one of Germany's greatest contemporary writers.  In 2013, as part of a Cal U of PA Honors English class titled "Digital Storytelling" that was also sponsored by the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, two freshman students (Corrine Dowlin and Rachael Fawley) used Kunert's poem and combined it with some of their own poetic flair for their video project.  Click on their YouTube video titled "A Town Called Donora:  A Digital Story" to view.  This is as good of an example of what took place on that October weekend in 1948. 

A Town Called Donora: A Digital Story

On Saturday, September 13th, 2014, as part of the Heinz History Center Affiliate Ambassador's series, Smog Museum archivist and curator Brian Charlton presented "Donora and the 1948 Air Quality Crisis" at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.   The presentation was filmed by C-SPAN and was featured on October 12th, 2014 on C-SPAN3.  Click on Donora and the 1948 Air Quality Crisis to view the show in its entirety (1 hour 15 minutes.)
Additional information on Cal U and their "Digital Storytelling" class can be found on their website link Cal U of PA.  Also, numerous articles have also been written in local newspapers on our video, two of which are Observer-Reporter Digital Storytelling and Tribune-Review Digital Storytelling.
A Pennsylvania Historical Markers was erected in 1995 (see photo to the left). 
Learn more about the 1948 Smog first hand by visiting the Smog Museum.
Click on our site's Merchandise tab to see some of the environmental books and DVD's being sold by the Society.