Classic Donora photos receive national focus
By Ron Paglia
Published: Saturday, November 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
Updated: Monday, November 19, 2012
The Donora Historical Society's commitment to preserving the history of the community is the focus of attention in a national publication.
The December issue of Shutterbug magazine, which has a circulation of some 100,000, features a story about pioneer photographer Bruce Dreisbach. The article by freelance writer J. Michael Krivyanski of Allison Park, “Bruce Dreisbach's Photographic Record: A Treasure of Images from a Pennsylvania Town,” is a four-page spread replete with 10 pictures.
“We are very grateful to Michael and the magazine editors for this coverage of one of the most interesting facets of our archives,” Mark Pawelec of the Donora Historical Society said. “Mr. Dreisbach captured some of the brightest moments of Donora's early history, and we are privileged to have well over a thousand pieces, maybe as many as 2,000, of his work. They are a valuable link to the past.”
The works to which Pawelec makes reference are classic glass plate photography negatives from the collection Dreisbach, a longtime employee of American Steel and Wire Co. in Donora. Interest in Dreisbach's work was rekindled in 2011 because of the major upgrade and beautification project at the entrance to Palmer Park on Route 837 between Donora and Monongahela.
“Mr. Dreisbach worked in quality control for American Steel and Wire, but he also was the company photographer and took pictures as a hobby,” Brian Charlton of the Historical Society said. “Whatever the circumstances, his photos are priceless in capturing the people, places and life of Donora from about 1910 to 1940.”
Dreisbach was 77 when he died of a heart attack on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 1959. According to his obituary in The Monessen Daily Independent, he came to Donora in 1906. After retirement from American Steel and Wire he worked as assistant X-ray technician at Magee Hospital in Pittsburgh. He was a charter member of the Donora Historical Society, which was formed in 1946.
Pawelec said that some of the glass plate negatives show scenes from the original Palmer Park, which was officially dedicated on Aug. 21, 1920. The park, which now stands as one of the best community recreation complexes in the region, was named in honor of William P. Palmer, former president of American Steel and Wire.
One of Dreisbach's photos (circa 1921) shows the original entrance to the site. Displayed in an arced sign between two large concrete pillars, it greeted visitors with this message: “Entrance. Palmer Park. American Steel & Wire Company.” The original entrance was located further north toward Monongahela along Route 837.
“Those massive columns are still there, but the sign of course has been gone for many years,” Pawelec said. “It's interesting to note that the original roadway leading to the park was a straight shot from Route 837, but it's difficult to understand where it led to at the area above the highway. The topography of the land has changed so much over the years because the original road and adjacent terrain are covered by trees and massive amounts of dirt that may have been the result from dumping either as a landfill or of slag from American Steel and Wire via the Donora Southern Railroad. I attempted to find traces of it a month or so ago, but it's an impossible task.”
Charlton, an American history teacher in the Belle Vernon Area School District, and Pawelec, a computer programmer at Federated Investors in downtown Pittsburgh, said Dreisbach's pictures from Palmer Park in 1921 offer an excellent view of life in that era.
“There are literally thousands of people enjoying themselves at what appears to be a community picnic,” Charlton said. “They are dressed in their Sunday best — children and adults — and the photos also show the pavilions, a large dance hall, playground equipment and youngsters competing in such events as sack races.”
Other Dreisbach photos feature people, businesses and industry in Donora. Some of the most poignant shots are of Dreisbach's wife, Lulu Miller Dreisbach.
Mrs. Dreisbach was recognized as a beautiful woman and her husband captured those qualities with his professional photography touch.
“Lulu is shown wearing the Victorian era fashions of the day, and her husband's other pictures emphasize similar styles in architecture on the buildings in Donora,” Pawelec said. “They are a treasure, indeed.”
Mrs. Dreisbach died at age 104 on Wednesday, March 5, 1986. She had worked as a photographer's model throughout the eastern United States for many years before settling in Donora in 1914. She and her husband are interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Nescopeck, Pa.
The Donora Historical Society's efforts to have the Dreisbach negatives made into glossy prints was boosted by a $1,000 grant from the Washington County Community Foundation. The organization, which is headquartered at the Donora Smog Museum at Sixth Street and McKean Avenue, also has received help from other agencies and works with the Washington County History and Landmarks Foundation as well as with David Lonich, Ph.D., adviser to the Teaching With Primary Sources (TPS) program at California University of Pennsylvania. Lonich also a member of the historical society.
The TPS program is significant, Charlton said, because it provides a unique initiative in bringing history to young students.
“The concept goes beyond the traditional setting of classrooms and textbooks,” he said. “It offers the opportunity for students to get a first-hand experience with history through artifacts and pictures. They come to the museum and receive a more personal look at local history. They find it more interesting that just hearing or reading about it in school; their reactions have been very positive.”
Charlton and Pawelec are hopeful that the focus on the Dreisbach collection and the Historical Society by the Shutterbug feature will generate even more interest on a broader scale. The DHS offers myriad displays, artifacts, photos and historical documents at its headquarters museum.
Pawelec emphasized that the Donora Historical Society is “always willing” to share information and archive materials with other organizations as well as the public.
Pawelec was instrumental in having 197 of Dreisbach's glass plate negatives converted into pictures by Photo Antiquities and its Museum of Photographic History on Pittsburgh's North Side.
“Developing glass plates into photos is still a manual process,” Pawelec said. “And Photo Antiquities did a marvelous job with the Dreisbach negatives. Modern technology has helped with the scanning of the original photos and zooming in on details that aren't visible to the naked eye.”
Additional information is available at www.donorahistoricalsociety.org or 724-823-0364.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.
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