Visiting the Donora Historical Society and Donora Smog Museum

Published by Jeremy. Last Updated on July 9, 2022.

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One of the things we love about the boroughs in southwest Pennsylvania is that many of them have a historical society and museum dedicated to sharing the history of the area.

Some of these, like the Saxonburg Museum, are huge. Others, like the Harmony Museums, are spread out over multiple historical buildings that are all worth exploring.

In Donora, the museum managed by the Donora Historical Society is fairly small. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in sharing the borough's history and the Donora Smog environmental disaster.

Dedicated to the History of Donora

Donora Museum

The first half of the museum is dedicated to the history of Donora, with exhibits from the borough's early days all the way to present times.

Among these include an explanation of how the name Donora came to be (a combination of William Donner and Nora Mellon- two notable figures instrumental in the town's founding), how the town began to grow and thrive thanks to the steel mills and zinc smelting plant, and the large array of famous athletes that came out of the region as well (Ken Griffey Jr. and Sr., Stan Musial, and Arnold Galiffa to name a few).

Stan Musial at Donora Historical Society

These are all illustrated beautifully with an impeccable collection and, if you are so inclined to ask questions as you go, further enhanced by the docents on-site.

Learning the early history of Donora is quite important in this particular instance as it leads up to one of the largest exhibits at the museum- the Donora Smog disaster of 1948.

A Strong Exhibit for the Donora Smog of 1948

Donora Smog Museum

To convey the tone and caliber of the exhibit, you first need to understand what happened during the disaster.

In October 1948 a temperature inversion caused a thick layer of fog to accumulate in and around Donora. Thanks to the geographical bowl-shape of the Donora region, the fog stuck around.

Pollution from the nearby Zinc smelting plant (namely sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine gas, and others) began to accumulate in the fog rather than dissipating in the atmosphere. This further prevented the fog from burning off in the mid-day sun and resulted in a four-day event where poisonous gas continued to build up in the fog over Donora.

When it was all said and done 20 people died, with thousands more sickened and impacted over the coming decades, and it wasn't until the rain came in that the fog finally went away.

Donora Smog Museum

The resulting investigations and outcry led to the passage of the Clean Air Act we know today.

This history is displayed prominently within the museum and is a sobering look into what unregulated industry and lack of scientific awareness can cause.

Overall, the Donora Smog Museum is one of those spots that we think everyone should visit because it is only in understanding the past that we can ensure mistakes are not repeated in the future. 

The Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum is located at 595 McKean Avenue in Donora, PA, and is open Saturdays from 11-3. As with everything, we recommend reconfirming the hours prior to visiting.

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