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Donora, Pennsylvania

5th Street Steps

Each step is a mere 4 inches tall, said to be measured by the stride of a woman wearing a hobble skirt. 

There’s a town along the Monongahela River, just north of the bright yellow Stan “The Man” Musial Bridge, called Donora. The old mill town is famous for being the “Home of Champions,” most prominently the aforementioned baseball legend, plus Ken Griffey, Sr. and Jr.

The Musial and Griffey homes are located uphill from the main drag, McKean Avenue, which runs along the flood plain next to the “Mon,” as locals call the Monongahela. Pretty much all the roads emanating from McKean upward are rather steep, particularly 5th Street, part of which was closed off years ago because it proved too dangerous for car travel.

On 5th Street now there is a street-wide swath of grass with a set of stairs on either side. The stairs on the left are original set, and tell an interesting story. Each riser, from the very bottom to the very top, is but 4 inches tall. Most stairs today have risers about 8 inches tall. So why do the 5th Street stairs, and many other staircases in Donora, have risers half that height?

It turns out that Rose Marie Iiams’ grandfather-in-law was the engineer who designed the stairs. Mrs. Iiams, 90, was a long-time pharmacist in Donora and worked all day, every day during the 1948 smog event. The story she tells may be apocryphal but it’s adorable nonetheless.

“Women were wearing hobble skirts then,” Iiams says. (A long and tight style that restricted ladies from lifting their legs very far.) “Well, his wife was a little woman, and his daughter was a big woman. And he measured the distance that each could raise her legs, and he made the steps halfway between.”

Know Before You Go

Drive north on McKean Avenue until 5th Street, and park. Walk uphill on 5th and watch for the stairs.