Cal U. Exhibit Focuses on Mon Valley History

Washington PA Observer-Reporter
21 March 2016
By Scott Beveridge

CALIFORNIA – California University of Pennsylvania librarian Julia McGinnis was drawn to glass negatives used a century ago by a mysterious Donora photographer as a new exhibit on Mon Valley history was taking shape on campus Monday.

The labor-intensive method used by Bruce Dreisbach and other photographers of his time to create photographs should draw interest from today’s students, who are accustomed to taking quick and easy selfies with cellphones, said McGinnis, who oversees special collections at Cal U.’s Louis L. Manderino Library.

“I think the glass plates are cool,” she said about the Dreisbach items brought to Cal U. by the Donora Historical Society for the exhibit, Voices of the Mon Valley: Oral History and Local Resources.

“The kids today have no concept about how photos were taken and developed from glass negatives. It’s alien to them,” McGinnis said.

Historical societies from Donora, California and Monessen were invited to display items from their collections here as part of the culminating event of work performed under a $15,000 grant to teach professors and the societies how to collect oral histories and incorporate them into classrooms. A sampling of the oral histories will be incorporated into the exhibit, along with select items from the university’s archives.

Donora owes a debt of gratitude to Dreisbach, who left behind a vast collection of his glass negatives containing images of the birth and growth of U.S. Steel mills along the Monongahela River in the borough. He shot groundbreakings, gatherings of steelworkers, scenes of them toiling in the zinc works, steel products and thousands of other scenes of one of the most infamous mills in the world. He also worked in the mill as an engineer and safety inspector. But the historical society doesn’t know much else about Dreisbach.

The photographer’s work was overshadowed by the infamous Donora smog of 1948, which killed more than 20 people and sickened thousands of others when a temperature inversion trapped the mills’ pollutants in the valley.

A display on the smog, which became the nation’s worst air pollution disaster, is included in Donora’s section in the new exhibit.

California Area Historical Society features borough native Bruce Dal Canton, who pitched for 12 seasons for major league teams, including the Pittsburgh Pirates. His worn-out leather game shoes are on display, along with one of his bobbleheads.

Among the items contributed by the Greater Monessen Historical Society are a lunch box and hard hat worn by a worker at the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel mill in the city.

“I’m just glad to be part of it,” said Pat Cowen, archivist at the California society.

“It’s an opportunity for us to show the valley what we are doing to preserve our history, because a lot of people don’t know we exist,” Cowen said.

The exhibit opens in the library from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday with an open house featuring speaker Lou Martin, a professor at Chatham University who specializes in Appalachian history and culture.

The exhibit, which is open to the public, will be open through April 10. Hours are: 5 to 7 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday; 3 to 5 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; and 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday. The gallery in the library at 701 Third St. will be closed March 25 to 28 and April 6.