Steel Mill and Zinc Works

"The voice of the mill was harsher than theirs. It came over the wall like the breathing of a giant at work, like the throb of an engine buried deep in the earth. In it were the piping of whistles and the clash of metal on metal; the chuffing of yard locomotives, the rattle of electric cranes and skip hoists, the bump-bump-bump of a train of cars getting into motion; the wide-mouthed blow of the Bessemers, the thud of five-ton ingots dropping six inches as they were stripped of their molds, the clean, tenpin crack of billets dropping from a magnet, the solid, unhurried grind of the ore dumper, lifting a whole railroad gondola of iron ore and emptying it, delicately; the high whine of the powerhouse dynamos, the brute growl of the limestone and dolomite crushers, the jolting blows of the steam hammers in the blacksmith shop, the distant, earth-shaking thunder of the blooming mill's giant rolls. A hundred discords merged into harmony, the harsh, triumphant song of iron and flame."
"Out of this furnace, this metal."
-- Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell (1941)
In the photo above is American Steel and Wire of Donora in 1920 as taken from across the Monongahela River in Webster. This 3.5 -foot panoramic photo was added to our collection in 2022. 
The single most reason why Donora became Donora is because of the steel mill. Without the mill, Donora would never have been. We would still probably be called West Columbia, nothing more than a small river village and whistle stops on the Pennsylvania Railroad, without much historical depth.
In the first years of the twentieth century, industrialists from Pittsburgh were looking to expand their companies into the Monongahela Valley because of its proximity to the river and railroad lines. In 1899, Richard B. Mellon purchased approximately 380 acres of land from Bert W. Castner, the Heslep heirs, Bradford Allen, and Alexander and Company for the Union Improvement Company. During the same year, William H. Donner and the Mellon interests organized the Union Steel Company. The Union Improvement Company 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, with William H. Donner as President, broke ground for the construction of the Wire Mill in 1900. Around the same time, the American Steel & Wire Company (AS&W) was organized in 1899 and became a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation in 1900. 
The original Wire Mill consisted of two rod mills, a wire drawing department, wire nail department, wire galvanizing department, and a varnished wire and barb wire departments. The capacity of the two rod mills at that time was 1200 tons in 24 hours. 
Simultaneously with the construction of the Wire Mill, Mathew Woven Wire Fence Company constructed a plant for the manufacture of woven wire fencing. This plant formed the nucleus of the Woven Wire Fence and Welded Wire Fabric department.
The plant was operated by the Union Steel Company until 1903 when the American Steel and Wire Company leased the property from the Union Steel Company.
In 1902, the Union Steel Company constructed the steel and blast furnace plant. Prior to the completion of the plant, the Union Steel Company leased the property to Carnegie Steel Company. The plant, consisting of two blast furnaces, twelve open-hearth furnaces and a 40-foot blooming mill including accessories, was completed. Carnegie Steel Company operated the plant until 1907 when it was closed down due to the Depression. In 1908, AS&W acquired the property from Carnegie Steel Company and had operated the plant without interruption until its closing in 1967.
As the mill grew, the population grew, houses and schools were being built, and other businesses that supported the mill and the people that worked in the mill were established: grocery stores, doctor's offices, law offices, tailors, banks, furniture stores, clothing stores, bakeries, car dealerships, etc. Industrialization brought immigrants from Europe and African Americans from the south. Donora had grown into a true melting pot of races, religions and cultures. 
Outside of the mill, AS&W would start to sponsor social activities. The Donora Steel Works Band was formed in 1912. The mill would also sponsor various sports leagues and teams, as well as organized picnics for the mill workers and their families at the newly created Palmer Park in 1920. One such picnic in 1921 featured an exhibition baseball game between mill workers and the Negro League's Homestead Grays. During the time the Wire Mill was operated by Union Steel Company, its requirement of steel billets was purchased in the open market. After the property was acquired by AS&W, steel billets were secured from subsidiaries of United States Steel Corporation. 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. Eventually, the Wire Mill would become the world's largest.
In the photo above is a DONORA ZINC WORKS sign that we believe dates to 1915. This five-foot 45-pound cast iron sign was added to our collection in 2024
In 1915, engineering work was started for the construction of the Donora Zinc Works. The first re-factories were made at the Pottery, the first smelter was produced on the No.10 Furnace and the first sulfuric acid unit was placed in operation. The other units of each department were completed in close order. The American Steel and Wire Company operated the world's largest Zinc Plant and on October 29, 1915, the Donora Zinc Works produced its first zinc. The plant occupied 4,000 feet of land parallel to the Monongahela River on 45 acres of land. 
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 in the manufacture of zinc in the Donora plant. In the photo above, a mill worker stands behind newly minted zinc ingots.
Zinc's value as a protective coating was long 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. In 1921 at the Wire Mill, the first machines were installed for producing wire welded wire fabric for reinforcement for concrete roads and concrete reinforcement in general.
In the 1930s, wire from Wire Mill would be wound into cable used to build the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California.
In the photo below is American Steel and Wire - Donora Steel Works and Wire Works in 1930s as taken from across the Monongahela River in Webster. This 4-foot panoramic photo was added to our collection in 2022. These two photos were taken by the same photographer.
                                                STEEL WORKS                                                                              WIRE WORKS
                                                WIRE WORKS                                                                                  ZINC WORKS
In the photo above is American Steel and Wire - Donora Wire Works and Zinc Works in 1930s as taken from across the Monongahela River in Webster. This 4-foot panoramic photo was added to our collection in 2022. 
Donora was a very important center of the nation's high standard of peacetime living and a vital cog in the defense of the American way of life. During World War II, a component of brass zinc was used in the manufacture of cartridges, shells, fuses and detonators. Alloyed with aluminum, magnesium and manganese, it was used in the manufacture of shafts, propellers, bearing, castings and forging for airplane parts. Its protective coating properties were utilized in galvanizing marine hardware, cables, pipes, tubes, canisters and drums for the Navy. Die-castings of zinc were used in the production of tanks.
Then in 1948, the Smog disaster occurred, marking the beginning of the end of the mill. While the Zinc Works created an abundance of prosperity for the town, it would prove to be its Achilles heel. After years of mounting environmental and economic concerns, and the obsolescence of the current zinc making process, the Zinc Works closed in 1957. In 1967, the remaining portions of the mill were dismantled and ultimately in 1968 the rest of the mill closed. A few of the original buildings still exist and have been consumed by the current industrial park.
As the mill goes, so does the town. Donora has looked to reinvent itself since the late 1960s. While a slow process, Donora is transforming into a new town whose final state has yet to be determined and the Donora Historical Society is hoping to play a part in that transformation. Learn more about our mills that were here in Donora and inquire about the original photos during the construction over 100 years ago. Some of these photos were taken by Bruce Dreisbach and were once in the possession of the Smithsonian Institute. Hear about the stories of some of the men who worked in the mill such as WWI veteran Andrew Posey, who after surviving the war, lost his life a few years later by being entombed in molten steel. Read original newspapers and view artifacts that were used in saving numerous lives during the 1948 Smog disaster caused by the mill. Also, see products and tools used in the mills and even the original whistles that blew at the start and end of each shift. You can see and hear about all this and more by visiting our Smog Museum
To get an idea of what work was like in the Donora Zinc Works, a horizontal retort zinc smelting facility, consider watching this 19-minute video of the Zinc Works at Swansea Vale Spelter Works in Wales, United Kingdom around 1960.
Slag is a byproduct of the steel making process and getting rid of it is a constant issue. The Donora Steel Works used it as the aggregate in concrete during the making of Cement City homes in 1916-17. They also used it to build up the banks of the Monongahela River, as well as simply just dumping it in nearby Palmer Park using slag pot cars pulled by locomotives of their Donora Southern Railroad that serviced the mill. The photo to the left is a slag pot rail car that sits at the old Brown's Dump in Jefferson Hills, Pennsylvania.
On occasion, slag pots filled with molten slag had a high content of iron that would settle to the bottom of the pot and solidify into a "button" or mushroom shape before being dumped but came loose during the slag dumping process. The photo to the left shows one of these mushrooms discarded near the tracks of the Donora Southern Railroad tracks north of Donora.
Consider watching this 5-minute video of Dumping slag at Bethlehem Steel from 1994 or reading about Brown's Dump - The West Mifflin Mountain Of Slag. This process hasn't changed in 100 years.
Children of Donora Steel Workers Digital Story:In December 2022, as part of a PennWest - California English Honors class titled "Digital Storytelling" that was also sponsored by the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, two students (Taylor Wright and Jacob Kerfonta) created this video about Children of Donora Steel Workers. Click on their YouTube video titled "The Good Days of Donora" to view.
Nearby Coke Ovens
Aside from iron ore and limestone, the third ingredient to make steel is coke. Coke is a grey, hard, and porous coal-based fuel with a high carbon content and few impurities, made by heating coal in the absence of air. It is an important industrial product, used mainly as a fuel and as a reducing agent in smelting iron ore in a blast furnace like in Donora.
A fire brick chamber shaped like a dome is used to roast coal into coke, commonly known as a beehive oven. It is typically 4 meters (13.1 ft) wide and 2.5 meters (8.2 ft) high. The roof has a hole for charging the coal or other kindling from the top. The discharging hole is provided in the circumference of the lower part of the wall. In a coke oven battery, a number of ovens are built in a row with common walls between neighboring ovens into a hillside. A battery consisted of a great many ovens. Coke was not made in Donora.
On the opposite side on the Monongahela River and about 7.5 miles south of Donora off of Route 906 between Belle Vernon and Naomi lies a battery of about 38 beehive coke ovens. These are worth a visit if you are interested in the steel making process.
To Donate to the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museumplease use our PayPal option to the right.
If you would like to add a note along with your donation, please consider sending an email