Donora Historical Society program will recall genesis of West Columbia
By Ron Paglia
Published: Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 5:58 p.m.
Donora will mark its 113th birthday this year, but there was a town on the site long before that — some 200 years ago.
That point will be emphasized when the Donora Historical Society presents a special program, “The Founding of Donora,” at 1 p.m. Saturday in the community meeting room of the Donora Public Library. The event is open to the public.
“We have had numerous inquiries about West Columbia, the village that existed before Donora was officially founded in 1901,” said Mark Pawelec of the Historical Society. “So, we are anticipating a larger crowd and opted to hold the Feb. 8 historical presentation at the library to accommodate more people.”
Brian Charlton, curator for the Donora Historical Society, will present the program recognizing the bicentennial of West Columbia, which was established in 1814. He will be showing pictures and artifacts of and telling stories about West Columbia and its transition into the newer and larger town that was to become Donora.
“West Columbia originally sat in the footprints of what was to become the American Steel and Wire Works and was eventually dismantled when the steel mill expanded south along the Monongahela River,” Charlton said. “The village was located where the blast furnace of the mill was constructed and where the Stan ‘The Man' Musial Bridge is now located.”
Charlton said that while nothing of the town of West Columbia remains, the historical society has photos from the late 1800s showing buildings and people in the village as well as pictures of construction of the new steel mill that “became the catalyst for the creation of Donora.”
The late R. Mitchell Steen Jr., longtime managing editor of The Valley Independent and noted area historian, recalled in his writings that the first settlement that was to become West Columbia is credited to Charles DeHaas, who laid out lots in the area in 1814. He called the place “Pittsborough.”
The name was changed in 1815 to Columbia, but to avoid confusion with a town of the same name in Lancaster County, the name again was changed, this time to West Columbia. That designation remained until the town became part of the Borough of Donora, which was founded in 1901.
“DeHaas' activity marked the first development of a community of any size within the area that is now Donora and at one time was mentioned as a possible site for the seat of a new county,” Steen said.
He continued: “The property was originally owned by Nicholas Crist and was called Strasburg. During Crist's ownership he operated a grain mill and laid out Market, Chestnut and Walnut streets, which retain the same positions and names (in Donora) today.
“Crist sold the property in 1794 to Robert Galloway, who in turn sold it to Harmonious Cole in 1795. The lands passed into the hands of Manuel Hoover and later to DeHaas, who sold a part of it to John Neal in 1815.
“At the time of DeHaas' sale, Neal, a Washington baker, became joint proprietor. A public square in West Columbia was laid out in 1815, with the condition that if the square was not occupied by a courthouse and other public buildings within 14 years of that date it was to revert to the proprietor Neal or his successors.”
Steen said the village was thriving enough by 1819 to obtain a post office, and DeHaas was named postmaster. The post office was later called Wesco until operations were suspended on Oct. 1, 1900, when a post office was set up in Donora.
Charles DeHaas returned to Donora after an absence of many years and posted notices on the door of the school house in West Columbia notifying “all persons occupying lots for which they had no title that they were trespassing,” Steen said.
“For a number of year subsequent to 1875 the Rev. Frank DeHaas, Charles' son, paid taxes upon a large number of lots until 1901, when the proprietors of the Donora project began to buy up West Columbia lots,” he wrote.
The Pittsburgh, Virginia and Charleston Railroad (later the Pennsylvania Railroad) bought its right-of-way through West Columbia from the heirs of Charles DeHaas in 1892, and in 1900 the Union Improvement Company agreed to buy the balance of the property.
In 1902, when the ground covered by West Columbia was about to be taken in Donora borough, residents protested because of their fear of increased taxes, Steen said. They also objected to their land being used for industrial and railroad purposes.
Ensuing rulings by three Washington County grand juries, the Pennsylvania Legislature and the state Superior Court cleared the way for annexation of West Columbia by Donora.
In a large advertisement in The Daily Independent of Monessen on Saturday, June 13, 1903, United States Steel Corp. announced the “chance of a lifetime” sale of lots in “South Donora” beginning June 20. It noted that lots sold at $800 in Donora two years earlier were now selling at $4,000 and $5,000, while South Donora lots were “now on the market at $200 and upwards, the only independent property adjoining the U.S. Steel Mills at Donora on the market.”
U.S. Steel said it was “now completing … immense plants… greatly the original plans of The Union Steel Company to cost many millions of dollars at Donora on PV&CRR.”
The steelmaker proclaimed the project was becoming “the largest manufacturing plant in the Monongahela Valley and will employ many thousands of hands … to supply the many open hearth furnaces of largest capacity, wire, rod, nail and other factories now under construction and to be completed in a few weeks.” It further stated that grading and paving of streets “are now under way in South Donora.”
The Jenisee Land Co. of Pittsburgh was in charge of the sale for US Steel.
“And that's only part of the West Columbia and Donora legacy,” Pawelec said. “Like Paul Harvey, Brian will tell the rest of the story at our presentation on Feb. 8.”
Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
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