Isolated Washington County town of Donora fights to hang on
From behind the counter in his Donora pizza shop, Anthony DiDonato has seen the toughest of the tough days play out in his gritty little town perched high above a sharp bend in the Monongahela River.
In almost 40 years of rolling pizza dough and stuffing calzones in his McKean Avenue shop, DiDonato watched the area's storied steel industry collapse and witnessed the mass exodus of those left jobless.
He has seen his town's main drag decline to the point where, on some blocks, the boarded-up buildings outnumber those that are occupied.
Time and again, Donora has dusted itself off and moved on from its setbacks.
It's a proud place, a 2-square-mile town of just 4,700 people that spawned baseball greats Ken Griffey Sr., his son Ken Jr. and Stan “The Man” Musial.
It's a place where Friday nights are all about high school football. A good pierogi or a steaming pan of halupki will garner favor with just about anyone.
This time, however, DiDonato and others fear something's different.
It all began with the bridge.
In 2009, state officials closed the 106-year-old Donora-Webster Bridge because of structural deficiencies.
There was always hope it would be rebuilt, DiDonato said.
Then came the crushing news that the span — which cost $189,500 to build in 1908 but a prohibitive $30 million to reconstruct today — would not be replaced.
Last week, PennDOT officials said crews will demolish the bridge by the end of August. Although spokeswoman Valerie Peterson said there's no chance for a reprieve, 17-term state Rep. Peter Daley, D-California, said he'll make a last-ditch effort with Gov.-elect Tom Wolf to save the span.
“It makes sense to replace it,” Daley said. “It's a vital link.”
It's a loss that some in the Washington County community believe will be difficult to weather.
Without the steel-gray truss bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the minutes-long trip from downtown Donora to Webster and other nearby communities in Westmoreland County will take 25 to 30 minutes, said John Cupper, 80, owner of the Boston Store, a women's clothing store and fixture on McKean Avenue since 1959.
It's easier for those on the “other side” to travel to big-box businesses in nearby Rostraver than to make the long trip to the mom-and-pop stores that have managed to hang on in Donora.
Because of that, Donora loses business to those other, more accessible towns.
The last of its three banks recently pulled up stakes.
There's no grocery store.
“For sale” signs are posted on churches, and even the thrift shop closed.
Local officials fought hard, attending every meeting that PennDOT held to discuss the bridge, lobbying anyone who would listen, and circulating petitions to save the structure.
“We could not persuade PennDOT that we need that bridge,” said Donald Pavelko, 59, the town's mayor, appointed by council in October when Mayor John “Chummy” Lignelli, 92, retired after 20 years in office. “And now we can't get anybody to come into town. The business district is hurting.”
The town has logged a 15 percent population decline since 2000.
“They have turned Donora into an isolated island,” Pavelko said.
DiDonato wrote to Gov. Tom Corbett, pleading for “a stay of demolition” for the span.
“At the time it was closed, we didn't realize how big an impact it would have on our town,” said DiDonato, who opened his restaurant in 1977, not long after he met his wife, Theresa — of course, in a pizza shop.
They estimate they have lost half of their lunch trade since the bridge closed.
Hard times again
Hard times are not new for Donora, named after Nora Mellon, the wife of banker Andrew W. Mellon, and industrialist William Donner, who founded Union Steel Co. there in 1899, starting a wire mill in 1900. It eventually became a subsidiary of U.S. Steel Corp. and closed in 1962.
Spunk tinged with a little radicalism has been part of Donora's makeup.
It's the place where 40 percent of the eligible men gave the World War I draft board fictitious addresses in protest. It's the place where dynamite blasts destroyed the homes of two men who crossed the picket lines during a 1919 steel strike.
And in 1948, when a legendary toxic smog settled over the town, killing 20 and sickening thousands, the people fought back, suing the industries they believe were responsible and later founding a still-open smog museum to commemorate the deadly inversion.
In the days after the steel mills up and down the river were shuttered and times became especially tough, Donora found itself with so little money that it couldn't afford a police car.
So it sold raffle tickets.
Longtime residents tout the spirit of the community.
“It's still a great town. There's good people here,” said Ken Barbao, 82, who played in the Pirates farm system in the 1950s.
But “there's no grocery store, no schools. There's not much of anything in this town,” Barbao said.
Some residents are waging their own campaigns to save the town.
DiDonato has contacted banks, trying to drum up interest in opening a branch in Donora.
Some have taken the town's case to social media sites, where one person lamented: “It's very sad when, in an impoverished town, a donation–based thrift shop is forced to shut down.”
Donora's troubles are emblematic of the difficulties many small towns endure, according to demographer William H. Frey of The Brookings Institution in Washington.
The prognosis for much of small-town America does not look good, while large, economically vibrant metropolitan areas likely will grow as jobs and housing markets pick up, he said.
DiDonato holds out hope for his town.
“We're not going anywhere,” he said. “... You just have to adjust.”
Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.