Located in a deep valley along a curve of the Monongahela River and approximately thirty-seven miles south of Pittsburgh by river, this local farmland was called “Walnut Bottom,” c. 1769, and by 1815, was known as the village of Columbia, later West Columbia. Even today, the area is isolated by its geography, two miles east of the road connecting Monongahela with Charleroi and reached by a long, winding street descending to the river plain. When the Pittsburgh, Virginia and Charleston Railroad (PVCRR) passed through in 1881, the possibility of using the wide, three miles of floodplain for industry was recognized by William Henry Donner and Andrew Mellon. They built the Union Steel Company here and, ultimately, the American Steel and Wire Company. Andrew Carnegie purchased the steel plant in 1905 and integrated their operations: one plant produced the steel, the other molded it into rods, nails, and wire. By 1915, the Donora Zinc plant was making anticorrosion coating for these steel products. The plants took raw materials into Donora and shipped them as finished products.
The town's name is a contraction of the names “Donner” and Donner's partner Andrew Mellon's wife's first name, “Nora.” When the town was laid out in 1900, there were four houses on the farmland and 12 residents. By 1903, there were more than one thousand buildings and 6,000 residents. Like Charleroi, which earned the moniker “Magic City” for the rapidity of its growth, Donora was a city that sprang up due to the power and industry of its major employers. At the peak of production, the town's population swelled to 13,000. To facilitate transportation, Washington and Westmoreland counties built the Donora-Webster Bridge in 1908. William Wylie, a local civil engineer, designed the 1,547-foot, five-span Parker truss.
Ethnic churches were important to the workers of Donora, including St. Michael's Byzantine Church (1911; 511 Murray Avenue), designed by Donora architect Conrad C. Compton for a Greek Catholic parish. The church is a handsome amalgam of elements, from octagonal brick towers supporting domes topped with Greek crosses to a Romanesque Revival round-arched entrance and windows to suit this multiethnic steel town. On an adjacent hillside, the cruciform St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church (1951–1959; 1 St. Nicholas Drive) displays the turquoise onion domes and elongated arches of eastern Europe, which contrast with sleek 1950s design elements, such as cream-colored brick and narrow windows. Architect Roman N. Verhovskoy (also Verhovskoi) applied multiple arches and richly carved door surrounds to add depth to the surfaces. The church was built by its congregants during evenings and weekends away from the mills, and, as a result, was eight years in the building.
Industrial success led to tragedy when, on Friday, October 29, 1948, thick smog settled in the river valley creating a temperature inversion that trapped toxic smoke in the town. Six thousand people were sickened and twenty died. Despite the disaster, the factories reopened two days later after a rain. This incident precipitated the first organized efforts to document the impact of air pollution on the populace, which eventually prompted federal regulations and, ultimately, the Clean Air Act of 1970.
Despite a boom around World War II, Donora's factories began layoffs soon after the war ended and they were closed completely by 1967. That year the Donora-Monessen Highway Bridge opened, the borough's second over the Monongahela River. Small-scale industry has opened along the river's edge in a new industrial park, but most of Donora's 5,500 residents now commute to work out of town.
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