Copyright Joel O. Lubenau, Lititz, Pa. February 12, 2005

Adapted from an article in Jefferson College Times, March 2005

 

Nobel Laureate Marie Curie Visits Canonsburg

On May 27, 1921, Marie Curie, Nobel Laureate, visited the Standard Chemical Company works in Canonsburg. The visit was part of a six-week tour of the United States that earlier included a reception at the White House where President Harding presented a gift of a gram of radium that had cost $100,000. The radium was produced by the Standard Chemical Company. For much of her visit to Western Pennsylvania, Mme. Curie was not in the best of health, which resulted in postponements and curtailments of scheduled activities. However, she seemed energized during her visits to the Standard Chemical plants in Pittsburgh and Canonsburg. In this photograph from the archives of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, taken during her visit to the Canonsburg plant, an animated Marie Curie converses with Louis F. Vogt, Canonsburg plant manager on the left, and James C. Gray, company president.

 

 A large hill covered by grass and low shrubs enclosed by a cyclone fence lies at the western edge of Canonsburg. It is south of Chartiers Creek, north of the railroad, and west of Strabane Avenue. Attached to the fence at regular intervals are metal signs that warn the passerby of danger: behind the fence there is radioactive material.

How did it get there? When? And, why?

The story of this site begins in 1909 with a western Pennsylvania entrepreneur, Joseph Flannery. In 1921, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie, deemed the site so important she visited it. During World War II, work on the site, secret at the time, became a linchpin of the Manhattan Project that led to the atomic bomb. This is an impressive story, astonishing even, but all that remains today is a large hill covered by grass and low shrubs enclosed by a cyclone fence.

Joseph M. Flannery

Joseph M. Flannery was born on July 18, 1867, son of Michael Joseph and Ellen (Kirwan) Flannery. He was educated at Duquesne University Holy Ghost College and with his brother, James J., established an undertaking firm. In 1904, he founded the Flannery Bolt Company in Bridgeville to manufacture boiler stay bolts for locomotives. His interest turned to vanadium and its use in high strength steel alloys. After securing control of a large vanadium ore deposit in Peru, he established a new firm, American Vanadium Company and built a plant in Bridgeville to research, develop, and produce vanadium alloy steel. His brother James joined the company, taking charge of the financial and mining interests.

Construction of the Panama Canal was in progress at the time. Flannery convinced General Goethals, in charge of the building of the Panama Canal, to use vanadium alloy steel for the canal’s lock gates. Henry Ford became convinced of the superior qualities of the alloy steel and incorporated it in his cars.

In 1909, Flannery was informed that his sister was afflicted with cancer that might be treatable with radium, but, he learned it was not readily available because radium was extraordinarily difficult to extract from ore. Previous ventures to commercially produce radium had met with limited success. Flannery withdrew from the American Vanadium Company and began a new venture - to make sufficient quantities of radium so it would be readily available.

Making Radium

In 1911, Standard Chemical Company was incorporated under the laws of the State of Delaware to search for, mine and mill ores and minerals. Capitalization of the company was $200,000, and stock was issued to F.R. Ransell of Philadelphia and George R.B. Martin and S.C. Seymour, both of Camden, N.J. On July 2, 1912, Delaware received a filing increasing the company’s capitalization to $500,000. This filing was signed by Joseph M. Flannery, company president, the first time his name appears on corporation documents. Standard Chemical Company’s authorized capitalization eventually reached $1,500,000 in the form of 15,000 shares having a par value of $100.

 The company’s mines were mainly in Paradox Valley in the southwest corner of Colorado in Montrose County. There, carnotite, a mineral containing vanadium, uranium, and radium, was mined, hand-sorted, and bagged in 75-pound sacks. High grade ore was shipped directly to the railhead. Lower grade ore was shipped to a concentrator erected some ten to forty miles distant from the mines. Sub-grade ore and waste rock was discarded. For every ton of milling ore that would be worked in Canonsburg, up to five tons of rock had to be removed from the mines. The company’s Paradox Valley operation employed about 250 persons.

Paradox Valley was in a remote part of the state and getting the ore to Pennsylvania was a challenge. Supplies and equipment were hauled to the mines by burros. Ore was hauled from the mines to weigh stations the same way. After weighing, it was shipped by wagon to the concentrator. The concentrator, named Joe, Jr. for Flannery’s eldest son, used a wet grinding process. The concentrated uranium-bearing portion was collected as a filter cake, press dried, and, now a very fine powder, bagged. Wagons, and later trucks, using a former stagecoach road, carried the ore to Placerville, sixty-five miles away, where it was loaded into boxcars of the Denver & Rio Grande, a narrow gauge railroad. The boxcars were taken to Salida where the ore was transferred to standard gauge boxcars. The Pennsylvania Railroad delivered these cars via its Chartiers Valley branch (originally the Chartiers Railway Company) to the Standard Chemical Company siding at Canonsburg.

 

Joseph Flannery (left) and two unidentified men stop for the camera somewhere in Paradox Valley.

ORAU

 

The company's mines were in Paradox Valley in southwestern Colorado. Mined ore went to a concentrator. In the photograph above, the two-story white building near the center is the company headquarters. Behind it is the concentrator, named Joe. Jr., after eldest Flannery’s son. The San Miguel River is in the foreground.

Bruyn

The entrance to Thunderbolt Mine, one of the mines in Paradox Valley. The miners are unidentified.

ORAU

A Paradox Valley mining camp crew.

ORAU

Loading a mine car. The miners were far from civilization and mine inspectors. There is no evidence of electricity, so there was only rudimentary mining machinery.

Radium, June 1921

Bagging the carnotite ore at the portal of a mine.

Radium, June 1921

 

Narrow trails limited transportation options to and from the mines. Ore was packed into bags and taken to weigh stations by burro trains.

ORAU

Wagon trains moved the bagged ore from the weigh stations to the concentrator and then to the railhead.

ORAU

 

In later years, above left, after the roads were improved, trucks hauled the wagons.

ORAU

Ore sacks were marked by the company to minimize losses. It is not known what the “A" and circle “B” marks signified.

Bruyn

The railhead was in Placerville, 65 miles from the concentrator. The ore sacks were loaded into Denver & Rio Grand narrow gauge boxcars that were taken to Salida. There, the ore was transferred to standard gauge boxcars that were delivered to the company's siding in Canonsburg.

ORAU

Flannery was familiar with the Chartiers Valley, having built the Flannery Bolt and American Vanadium plants in nearby Bridgeville. The Canonsburg mill occupied property west of Canonsburg between the railroad and Chartiers Creek. Originally part of a farm owned by the Alexander family, the property was purchased by the Simpson Stove and Manufacturing Company in 1901. The stove company’s works closed in 1904 and were sold to W.M. Munhall subject to a $10,000 mortgage. In 1909, the mortgage was in default and the property was sold with the expectation it would be taken over by an enamelware manufacturer. Instead, Standard Chemical moved in.

1902 map of the Canonsburg site from an advertisement in the Canonsburg Daily Notes for a real estate development that would become Strabane. The railroad spur and the Simpson Stove Works are all that occupied the site.

 

Top. The Simpson Stove Company building, from the Canonsburg Centennial Photographic Booklet.

Bottom. Standard Chemical Company’s modifications to the stove works in this undated photograph that is in the ORAU collection taken early in the plant’s history.

The mill produced vanadium and uranium that were used in ferro-alloys, but its primary product was radium. To produce a gram of radium at the mill, Standard Chemical used 500 tons of ore, 500 tons of various chemicals, the power from 1,000 tons of coal, and 10,000 tons of purified water. The Canonsburg site was ideally situated to deliver these resources. About 150 persons worked at the Canonsburg mill. The milling chemistry was patterned after that developed by Mme. Curie in her Paris laboratory to extract radium from an Austrian ore, pitchblende. But, applying her laboratory procedure to an industrial operation to process American carnotite required considerable modification that took two years, 1911 to 1913. During this period, 2.1 grams was produced. At end of 1913, the modifications were completed, enabling Standard Chemical to expand the Canonsburg plant and begin commercial production the following year. From 1914 to 1921, annual radium production averaged 9 grams, peaking at 18.5 grams in 1920.

Above, left. The Canonsburg Standard Chemical Company mill west of Canonsburg in 1921 viewed from the north. In the foreground is Chartiers Creek, and beyond is the right-of-way of the interurban from Washington. The mill complex is in the center. To the right are the buildings and kilns of the W. S. George Pottery. The village of Strabane is on the hillside beyond. Today, foliage and buildings block this view. Sandberg Photograph, 1921.

The ore shed at the Canonsburg plant is seen above, center. At right is the laboratory at the Canonsburg mill. ORAU photos.

Above, left. The Canonsburg mill’s end product was a mixture of barium and radium salt that was transferred to the company’s laboratory in the Vanadium Building, Pittsburgh for refining. The salts were packaged in glass containers carried in covered bailed metal pails that were taken to Pittsburgh by messengers via the Pittsburgh Railways Company interurban cars that passed by the mill. Here interurban #3619, manufactured by Kuhlman and in use at the time Standard Chemical was producing radium, is seen at Washington. An error on the placard put Morganza before Canonsburg rather than between Canonsburg and Pittsburgh. PTM

Center. A photograph of Joseph Flannery from Fleming, History of Pittsburgh and Environs (1922).

Above, right. The Vanadium Building on the corner of Meyran and Forbes Avenues in the Oakland, Pittsburgh from a contemporary tinted post card. Standard Chemical Company occupied the top two floors.

The Canonsburg mill product was a mixture of barium and radium chloride, with the radium being but a tiny fraction, about 1 gram in a thousand pounds of the mixed salt. The two elements, barium and radium, are in the same chemical family. Because of this, typical chemical means cannot be used to separate the tiny amount of radium salt from the barium salt. Instead, fractional crystallization was used, the same method used by Marie Curie. Open porcelain pans containing the salt solution were set out and the water evaporated slowly, resulting in formation of crystals, the heavier radium salt concentrating in the crystals. The increase in the concentration of the radium in the crystals was small. So, the crystals were re-dissolved and the process repeated until the desired purity was reached.

This delicate operation took place in Standard Chemical’s laboratory in the Vanadium Building on the corner of Meyran and Forbes Avenues in Oakland, Pittsburgh. The building was erected by the American Vanadium Company in 1911. Standard Chemical occupied the top two floors. Transportation of the barium-radium chloride salt from Canonsburg to Oakland was by trolley. Messengers carrying bailed pails containing stoppered glass containers of the salt boarded the Pittsburgh Railways Company interurban from Washington at the Alexander stop. In downtown Pittsburgh, they transferred to a Forbes Avenue city car for the trip to Oakland.

The Oakland laboratories were also used for research and development of radium products. The primary use of radium was in medicine. (Flannery’s success in having Standard Chemical Company produce radium came too late to save his sister’s life.) Standard Chemical set up a pathology laboratory to study the biological effects of radium. Luminous paints were developed. These became a major product. Another product that was developed was radium fertilizer. Among the test plots used by the laboratory to evaluate the product were the lawns and gardens of Joseph Flannery. The crop yield of these and other test plots were carefully measured and compared with those from control plots.

By 1921, between 120 and 140 grams had been produced worldwide. Of that, Standard Chemical made between 74 and 87 grams, more than half.

Above, left. The lobby entrance to the company offices in the Vanadium Building.

Center. Joseph M. Flannery’s office.

Right. To purify the radium, solutions of the barium-radium mixture were allowed to evaporate in porcelain pans, producing crystals that were slightly richer in radium. The crystals were re-dissolved and the process was repeated until the required purity was reached. Through the windows can be seen letters of the roof sign for the Iroquois Hotel, now the Iroquois Building, across Meyran Avenue.

Above, left and center. Laboratories in the Vanadium Building.

Right. Two chemists discuss a problem (or is it lunch)? Though not identified, the man on the left is believed to be Glenn Donald Kammer, a University of Pittsburgh graduate who became Assistant Director of Research. He supervised the making of Marie Curie’s gram of radium.

 

At the time, radium cost between $100,000 and $120,000 per gram, by weight more costly than the Hope Diamond. Finished radium was stored in a vault.

Examples of radium sources and containers. In the 1960s, the author recovered a radium source stored inside a stainless steel container and box similar to that on the right from a deceased physician’s home in Sewickley Heights. After disposing of the radioactive material, the container and box were donated to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Radium fertilizer provided a profitable use for the ore tailings. The Standard Chemical Company claimed the fertilizer was beneficial - compare the plants between the men, both unidentified, with the controls on the left.

The photographs in this group are courtesy Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU). They are from a photo album apparently compiled by the company. Not surprisingly, it is slightly contaminated with radium.

 

Marie Curie

Marie Curie was born Maria Salomea Sklodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, now in Poland and then part of Tsarist Russia. Though she moved to France to pursue her education and remained there, she never forgot Poland and remained proud of her heritage. In 1903 she shared the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and in 1911 the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to her.

Marie Mattingly Meloney Brown, known to her friends as Missy was a journalist who started her career at the Washington Post at the age of seventeen. She moved on to become an associate editor of Everybody’s and then editor of the Delineator, a women’s issues magazine. Mrs. Brown had long sought an interview with Mme. Curie. With the help of a French scientist who knew both, the interview took place in May 1920. The interview began with Mme. Curie recounting the large quantity of radium in America, some 50 grams, the locations of which she recalled exactly. In contrast, Mme. Curie said that her laboratory had but a gram, adding that purchasing more was not possible because it was too dear. From that conversation emerged a campaign organized by Mrs. Brown to raise $100,000 to purchase a gram of radium for the scientist.

Two committees were organized, a women’s committee to raise funds and an advisory committee. Mrs. Brown marshaled the considerable influence of the Delineator behind the campaign. Mme. Curie had nothing to do with the fund raising, but when it was completed, Mrs. Brown prevailed upon her to visit America to accept the gift to be presented to her at the White House by President Warren G. Harding. The trip itinerary was expanded to six weeks to include lectures, visits to universities that conferred honorary degrees on her and, at Mme. Curie’s request, visits to the Grand Canyon and the Standard Chemical Company plants in western Pennsylvania.

The White House ceremony took place May 20, 1921. The President presented her a key symbolizing the gift of the gram of radium. A replica of the radium was displayed in an adjacent room. The radium itself was awaiting calibration by the National Bureau of Standards (for which, some years before, Mme. Curie had supplied a radium standard). The calibration was completed June 22, 1921 and the radium delivered to the ship returning Mme. Curie to France.

Left, formal portrait of Marie Curie [LOC]. Right, the Curie party: Marie Curie, her daughters, and the editor who organized the fund raising enabling the purchase of the radium for Marie Curie. Left to right, Marie (Missy) Mattingly Meloney Brown; Irene Curie, the eldest daughter who later became, like her mother, a scientist and Nobel Laureate; Marie Curie; and Eve Curie who became her mother’s biographer. Eve Curie lives in New York City and celebrated her 100th birthday on December 6, 2004 [RSNA].

 

President Warren G, Harding with Marie Curie at the White House on May 20, 1921 [RSNA].

Above left. The cover of the program for the University of Pittsburgh convocation conferring an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Mme. Curie [HSWP].

Right. For the ceremony, a replica of the radium was displayed in the White House. The actual radium was undergoing calibration by the National Bureau of Standards. The calibration certificate and the radium were delivered to the ship returning Marie Curie to France [NIST].

When Mme. Curie arrived by train in Pittsburgh on May 25th, she was ill and a trip to Canonsburg planned for that day was postponed. The following day she toured Standard Chemical Company’s laboratories in the Vanadium Building. At 3:30 in the afternoon, she attended a University of Pittsburgh convocation at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall where an honorary Doctor of Laws degree was conferred. During the day, she had become fatigued. Accordingly, the ceremony was shortened to 15 minutes, and her daughters stood in her place at the following reception.

Mme. Curie and her daughters stayed as the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Henry R. Rea in Sewickley Heights. On the morning of May 27th, accompanied by her daughter Irene, she joined a party of 17 persons that traveled by automobile to the Canonsburg plant. Reception ceremonies at the plant were limited to a luncheon followed by a tour of the plant that lasted about one hour. James C. Gray, who succeeded Joseph M. Flannery (who died in 1920) as president, and Louis F. Vogt, Canonsburg works manager, guided her tour.

In some of the photos taken during the visit, Marie Curie is on the arm of Mr. Gray, a seemingly frail woman (which she was). Other photographs depict a woman engaged in serious conversation with her hosts, perhaps energized by scientific and technical aspects of the commercial production process that was essentially the same that she developed to isolate and discover the element.

Marie Curie’s visit to the Canonsburg mill on May 27, 1921 was covered by newspaper reporters and photographers. The white-haired man in the light suit is James Gray who became president of the company following Joseph Flannery’s death in 1920. In the dark suit is Louis Vogt, manager of the Canonsburg mill works.

The photos other than the upper left and lower right are snapshots apparently taken and preserved by Mary Anne Dickson, believed to have been Vogt's secretary. They were given to J. T. Herron, Sr. in the 1960s. Upper left is from NIST; lower right from CSN.

The June 1921 issue of the journal, Radium, included an illustrated article on Standard Chemical Co. and Mme. Curie’s visit.

 These photos depict the making of Mme. Curie's radium in the company's laboratories in the Vanadium Building in Pittsburgh. Upper right, shallow pans of solutions of the radium-barium salt from Canonsburg are slowly evaporated to separate the radium. Right, a chemist uses a mouth pipette to transfer liquid, a procedure strictly prohibited in today's radiochemistry laboratories. Below left, the radium in inserted into glass tubes. Below right, the ten glass tubes of radium are shown with the shielded case used to ship the radium to France.

 

 

This rather muddy photograph from the June 1921 Radium shows the Standard Chemical Company’s Canonsburg works from the east. The photographer was standing on or near the Strabane Avenue bridge. It appears that the flat, which became a ballfield, is flooded, not a rare event then or now.

 The End of Standard Chemical Company

Deposits of pitchblende, the same type of radium ore used by Marie Curie, were discovered in the Haut Kantanga district of the Belgian Congo beginning in 1913. The ore was far richer than American carnotite. To produce one gram of radium 500 tons of American carnotite ore was needed but only 10 tons of Belgian pitchblende was needed. Belgian mining costs were much lower as well. Mining of Haut Katangan ore began in 1921 by Union Miniere du Haut Katanga, a company organized in 1906 to exploit minerals in the district. It shipped the pitchblende to Oolen, Belgium where radium production began in 1922.

Standard Chemical Company officials recognized that their radium could not compete with the Belgian product. In early 1922, the company secured a contract to represent Union Miniere in the U.S. for five years. The contract included the purchase by Standard Chemical of 9 grams of Belgian radium for $50,000 per gram. In return, the Standard Chemical Company agreed to end its production of radium.

But, in 1926 and, again in 1927, Standard Chemical Company’s requests to renew the contract were rebuffed. Instead, Union Miniere proposed Standard Chemical liquidate itself and turn over its good will and sales organization to them. In return, Union Miniere would take back, at cost, 23 grams of radium it had sold to Standard Chemical.

Standard Chemical Company divested itself of its assets, shutting down the mining and concentrator operations in Colorado. The Canonsburg site was sold in 1923. On New Year’s Eve, 1925, a fire broke out. One can only speculate about the radioactive content in the plume from the fire. According one account, firemen hesitated to approach the blaze, not because of the radium but because of reports that the site was being used to produce explosives. About $100,000 damage resulted. In 1929, the Vitro Chemical Company, a chemical and ceramics manufacturer, acquired the site.

The liquidation of Standard Chemical Company was completed in 1933 when it notified Delaware that stockholders approved dissolving the corporation. Twelve stockholders possessing a total of 11,278 shares approved the action and signed the filing. One of signatures was that of Joseph M. Flannery, Jr., Flannery’s eldest son. He held 3 shares.

Standard Chemical Company discontinued making radium in 1922 becoming a sales agent for radium made in Belgium. The Canonsburg mill was sold in 1923. In December 31, 1925, a fire caused between $40,000 and $100,000 damage. The remnants were torn down afterwards.

By 1933, the Standard Chemical Company had sold its assets and shareholders approved dissolving the company. Among those signing the notice was Joseph M Flannery, Jr. the eldest son, who owned three shares.

 

 

World War II

In the fall of 1939, scientists, supported by a letter from Albert Einstein, met President Roosevelt to urge the government to pursue the development of an atomic bomb. With war clouds having gathered over Europe, there was concern that German scientists were pursuing this. From this meeting emerged the Manhattan Project, an unprecedented national scientific research and development effort that culminated in the only wartime use, to date, of nuclear weapons, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.

The Manhattan Project required large amounts of uranium. In 1937, Belgium closed the its mines in the Belgian Congo. By that time, more than 2000 tons of pitchblende had been stockpiled, enough for about 20 years’ worth of radium production. At the end of 1940, with a war underway in Europe, Belgium transferred the stockpile to the United States. It provided one of the initial sources of uranium for the Manhattan Project.

In Canonsburg, the Vitro Chemical Company had been producing uranium at the former Standard Chemical site since 1929 when it bought the property, primarily for the glass and ceramics industry. The government brought Vitro into the Manhattan project as a supplier of uranium. Vitro made uranium for the Manhattan Project by recycling the tailings from Standard Chemical Company’s milling of American carnotite and from the Belgian pitchblende stockpiled in the United States, the same kind of ore that led to the Standard Chemical Company’s demise.

After end of the war, in 1946, Congress passed and President Truman signed into law the MacMahon Act creating the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). This landmark legislation placed control of development of atomic energy under a civilian five member commission. Developing military applications, however, was its primary responsibility.

In Canonsburg, Vitro continued to produce uranium, most of it for the AEC nuclear weapons program. In addition to producing uranium from ores, Vitro recovered uranium from sludge, sweepings, and other waste materials generated at Atomic Energy Commission facilities. In 1956, Canadian ore tailings were shipped to the site for uranium recovery. Vitro lost money on this project leading to closure of the plant by 1960.

Aerial photograph showing the former Vitro plant taken in 1969, north at top. Strabane is at the bottom of the frame with the railroad right-of-way between the village and the plant. Chartiers Creek comes in at the lower left, meanders above the site, and exits to Canonsburg at the lower right.

By 1944, Vitro Chemical Company occupied the site and was secretly making uranium for the Manhattan Project. Montage of the Vitro buildings in the 1960s.

A Department of Energy map of the site, one of many prepared for the remediation of the site. The orientation is the same as for the previous maps.

 

  

Left, a view looking northeast along the railroad siding, c.1913. The building on the left is the one erected by Simpson Stove Company. ORAU

Right, the same view photographed by the author in 2004.

 

Left, a softball game the summer of 1940 on a ball field west of Strabane Avenue. The view is towards the east. The parked cars are on Strabane Avenue. The Payne AME Church is on the hill in the background. The area is now inside the fenced area and no longer accessible. Photo by John A. Talpas.

Right, looking westward from the cemetery behind the Payne AME Church, in 2004. The former ball field is across Strabane Avenue inside the fence.

Left, Vitro Chemical Company in the 1950s in a photo taken by Frank Mirisciotti.

Right, the same view in 2004. The flat-roofed two-story building in the lower center and the house with the dormer in the lower right can be used as markers.

Top, right. The only historical marker for the Standard Chemical Company is a wall plaque at the entrance to the University of Pittsburgh’s Allen Hall. It commemorates the 100th anniversary in 1967 of the birth of Marie Curie, the conferring of an honorary degree in 1921, her visit to the plants of the Standard Chemical Company, its role as a major radium producer and in the making of the gram of radium presented to Marie Curie by President Harding, and the role of Glenn Donald Kammer, a University of Pittsburgh graduate who supervised its production. The plaque was unveiled on September 20, 1969 by the Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, Cardinal Wojtyla, who in1978 became Pope John Paul II.

Epilogue

There were 220,000 cubic yards of ore tailings on the Canonsburg site. Radium and uranium ore tailings are radioactive. The processing of radium and uranium ore results in contamination of buildings, soil, and environs. In 1949, a botanist from Cornell University, L. F. Randolf, accompanied by a health physicist, Hanson Blatz, surveyed the site, searching for radiation from the tailings, which was found, and examining plant life for evidence of damage by the radiation on the plants, which was not found. This was one of the earliest independent surveys of the Canonsburg site for radioactive contamination. By the late 1950s and early 1960s the radioactive contamination at Canonsburg site had come to the attention of other health physicists, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and federal agencies.

In 1954, a new Atomic Energy Act was passed, creating a licensing system for regulation of radioactive materials covered by the Act. Vitro’s processing of uranium ore in Canonsburg was covered by an AEC license for the uranium, but the AEC held that it did not have regulatory authority over the radioactive materials in the ore tailings. By this time, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), which had been independently studying the radiation hazards associated with uranium mining and milling, was reaching conclusions about the seriousness of these hazards with which the AEC did not agree.

In 1962, the Vitro site was purchased by the Canon Development Company for redevelopment to draw new industries to the area. The same year, the state concluded the idled Vitro factory needed to be cleaned up. The developer asked Vitro to clean up the site. Vitro agreed to do so provided it could use the former tailings lagoon to dispose of the cleanup waste. The AEC approved the proposal and the project proceeded, but subsequent surveys of the site disclosed still other contamination remained.

Meantime, in Washington, DC, Congress enacted two laws effecting future federal action at Canonsburg. The first abolished the AEC, moving the AEC’s regulatory arm to a new independent agency, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Other parts of the former AEC eventually were transferred to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). This took effect in 1975. In 1978, Congress addressed the gap in the Atomic Energy Act that left uranium ore mill tailings unregulated. These were placed under NRC’s jurisdiction. Equally important, Congress provided money for the remediation of twenty-two uranium mill sites. Of the twenty-two, twenty-one were in the western United States. The exception was the Canonsburg site. It was included through the efforts of Congressman Austin J. Murphy, D-Monongahela.

How to clean up the Canonsburg site was controversial. Ultimately, the buildings on the site were razed and the rubble, tailings, and other wastes on the site consolidated. Contaminated materials traceable to earlier site operations were removed from 163 locations in the vicinity of Canonsburg to the site. The collected waste was then buried in a disposal cell lined with a one-foot layer of clay and covered with an engineered cap to minimize rainwater infiltration and erosion.

The project cost $48 million. The 18.6 acre site, now owned by the state, contains 376,000 cubic yards of contaminated material enclosed by a cyclone fence posted with radiation hazard warning signs. The federal government periodically inspects it, as does the state. For the foreseeable future, this is the final chapter for this storied site.

All is in readiness for the reception luncheon for Mme. Curie at the Standard Chemical Company’s plant in Canonsburg on May 27, 1921. The place is the Engineer’s Room. The unpretentious setting (note the folding chairs) probably suited Mme. Curie. The flags on the walls are a nice touch. Sitting at the table awaiting the visitors’ arrival (and no doubt having been involved in the preparations for the visit) are Julius Enlow and Mary Anne Dickson. Mary Anne Dickson preserved this and other photographs of Mme. Curie’s visit in a scrapbook. It is believed that she was secretary to Louis Vogt, Canonsburg works manager.

Acknowledgements

Librarians and archivists are unsung heroes. They are transforming our library and historical collections to digital formats, a formable task. At the same time, they continue the essential task of maintaining and cataloging records still in their original formats. They are unfailingly helpful even when confronted with inquiries seemingly impossible to answer. The following is a list of institutions whose collections were invaluable resources as were their staffs: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Archives, Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Department, Duquesne University Gumberg Library, Greater Canonsburg Library, Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania Library, Library of Congress, Library System of Lancaster (PA) County, Libraries of the University of Pittsburgh, National Library of Medicine, Pennsylvania Trolley Museum Archives, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation James D. Van Trump Library, State of Delaware Division of Corporations, Citizens’ Library (Washington PA), and the Museum and Archives of the Institute of Radium of the Curie Institute, Paris, France which I had the good fortune to visit twice.

Many persons helped in bringing together the story. It is with some trepidation I list them fearing that in doing so I may fail to include all. If I have, I apologize; my memory (and note taking) is fallible. In alphabetical order: David Allard, Monique Bordry, Paul Frame, Charles Gorday, Jim Herron, Ed Landa, Ann Lewicki, Ed Lybarger, Rose Marie Pratt, Jerry Rosen, and Jim Yusko. Tom Gerusky, long time director of the Pennsylvania radiation control program where I began my career as a health physicist, deserves honorable mention for encouraging me to become one. Thank you, all.

To my daughter, Anne-Marie Lubenau, Executive Director of the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, special thanks for the innumerable suggestions about where to look and whom to ask in Pittsburgh.

Last, but not least, my wife, Anne who took a chance on me in 1963.

 

Additional Reading

The documentary record of Standard Chemical Company is substantial but widely scattered. An important part of the record is the company’s journal, Radium. In addition to its commercial mission of promoting radium and radium products, it provided a venue for company officials to report on its history and its activities. A complete set is in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. A second set is cataloged in the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, MD.

 

Journal articles:

“Buried Treasure to Buried Waste: The Rise and Fall of the Radium Industry,” Colorado School of Mines Quarterly, 82:1, (Summer 1987) by Edward R. Landa. This is the definitive account of the American radium industry.

“The Origin and Early Development of the Belgian Radium Industry,” Environment International 19:491-501 (1993) by A. Adams. The title says it all.

“Marie Sklodowska Curie in America, 1921,” Radiology 223:299-303 (May 2002) by Ann M. Lewicki. This is an account of the events leading to the trip and the trip itself.

 

Biographies of Marie Curie:

Madam Curie, A Biography by Eve Curie, The Literary Guild of America (American translation) 1937. Published two years after her death, her daughter provides an intimate account of her life.

Marie Curie, A Life by Susan Quinn, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Drawing on newly available records and interviews, the result is a more complex picture of the subject.

Obsessive Genius, The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith, W.W. Norton & Co., 2005. Ms. Goldsmith provides more insights.

 

Web sites (accessed December 2004):

Details on the cleanup of the Canonsburg mill site can be accessed at http://www.eia.doe.gov /eneaf/nuclear/page/untra /canonsburg_title1.html.

The Standard Chemical Company photo album can be accessed at http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/Miscellaneous/photoalbum/photoalbum.htm.

The story of Marie Curie and the radium standards at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards can be accessed at http://www.physics.nist.gov/Gen Int/Curie/1921.html.

 

Treasure Hunt

Despite the existing rich documentary record, there are records and artifacts of interest still to be found or have been lost awaiting rediscovery. In no particular order of importance:

Standard Chemical Company stock certificates - The company authorized issuance of 15,000 shares. We know from the papers filed with Delaware dissolving the company in 1933 that at least 11,278 were sold and outstanding at that time. During the period the company existed, stock certificates were the typical means of documenting shares that had been authorized and sold.

The replica of the radium that was displayed at the White house - Given to Mrs. Harding as a souvenir according to one account, it was later displayed in Clapp Hall of the University of Pittsburgh. It has not been seen, however, for many years.

Arthur Miller’s scrapbook - Miller was a Purdue University graduate trained in chemistry who was employed by Standard Chemical Company from 1914 to 1930. He specialized in measuring radiation from radium sources and occasionally used this expertise to search for radium sources that were lost. Afterwards, he lived in Dormont and occasionally assisted persons who lost radium or needed assistance in relocating or disposing sources. While at Purdue and for some years after he joined Standard Chemical, he kept a scrapbook recording all kinds of tidbits on his studies at Purdue and work at the company. He later gave it to a friend in Dormont. In the 1960s, when I worked for the state, I was asked by that person to survey the scrapbook for radium contamination. One item was slightly contaminated - the letter from Standard Chemical Company offering a job. We replaced the letter with a photocopy and returned the scrapbook. At the time, we didn’t recognize its historical value.

Photographs of the University of Pittsburgh conferring an honorary degree on Marie Curie, and her visit the same day to the Standard Chemical Company laboratory in the nearby Vanadium Building. Even though the university ceremony was abbreviated because of her fatigue, it would be surprising if no photographs were taken while she was on campus. It would be equally surprising that the Standard Chemical Company, which diligently documented its history in words and pictures, did not photograph her visit to the Vanadium Building.

 

Photo credit abbreviations:

Bruÿn - From Uranium Country by Kathleen Bruÿn, University of Colorado Press, Boulder, CO, 1955.

Carnegie - Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Collection

CSN - From Marie Curie y la Radiactividad by José Manuel Sánchez Ron, Consejo de Seguridad Nuclear, Madrid, Spain, 1998.

Fleming - History of Pittsburgh and Environs, George Thorton Fleming, The American Historical Society, 1922.

Herron - Collection of James T. Herron.

HSWP - Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania

LOC - From the Library of Congress web site, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query.

Lubenau - Collection of author.

NIST - From the National Institute of Standards and Technology web site, http://physics.nist.gov/GenInt /Curie/1921.html

ORAU - Courtesy of Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Additional photos can be seen at http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/Miscellaneous/photoalbum/photoalbum.htm

PABRP - Pennsylvania Bureau of Radiation Protection, Department of Environmental Protection, Pittsburgh Regional Office, Pittsburgh, PA.

PTM - Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, Washington, PA.

RSNA - From the Radiological Society of North America web site, http://radiology.rsnajnls.org/cgi /content/figsonly/223/2/299.

 

 

The Author

Joel O. Lubenau is a native of Brooklyn, NY. Following high school, he was employed in the steel industry. He received a civil engineering degree in 1961 from The Cooper Union, New York City. After two years in the U.S. Public Health Service he changed careers and became a health physicist. He worked for the Pennsylvania radiation control program, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before “retiring” in 1999. Now a consultant, he resides in Lititz, PA with his wife Anne (Reilly), a native of Lebanon, PA. Their daughter, Anne-Marie, lives in Pittsburgh. In addition to belonging to the Jefferson College Historical Society, he is a member of the Lititz and Manheim Historical Societies, the Pennsylvania Heritage Society, Friends of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum.

 

  The Jefferson College Times is published by the Jefferson College Historical Society; 220 North Central Avenue; Canonsburg, PA 15317. The Jefferson College Historical Society is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to advancing knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of local history. Members receive the JCTimes by mail four times a year. Articles of local historical interest are earnestly solicited. Correspondence should be addressed to Editor, Jefferson College Times, 117 S. Central Avenue, Canonsburg, PA 15317.