The town was named after the mineral "natron". For those of you who skipped a degree in geology, that substance is a naturally occurring mixture of baking soda and soda ash. Blended with oil, it was used to make soap, employed as mouthwash, and helped in cleansing teeth. It could also be used to preserve meat and fish, solder precious metals together, make the color "Egyptian blue" or cobalt glass, and serve as an antiseptic to treat wounds. Ancient people used it as an insecticide and for mummification. Perhaps the mineral's namesake could use the stuff to mothball itself for some distant time in the future- because while Natrona still awaits its final flat-line, its dying gasps are almost audible.
For years the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company (later Pennsalt/Pennwalt- the operation was started by Quakers in 1850) operated in adjoining Harrison Township. Salt mining was the bedrock of economic activity in the Allegheny Valley. In 1985, Pennsalt used a 62-acre near Natrona as a Lindane Dump, for waste disposal of mining tailings (cryolite) and bottom ash. These materials included DDT tracings and benzene, and inevitably contaminated groundwater supplies. The dump was designated as a federal EPA Superfund site in March of 1992.
Pollution of the area's water seems to be an ongoing tradition. Allegheny Ludlum (a steelmaking company) still operates industrial plants in the area. In 1995, the PA office of the EPA charged the company with dumping high levels of acid and metals into the Allegheny River. Although cleared of most of the 800 allegations in 1997, the company was found guilty of nine violations of its discharge permits at their Brackinridge Mill between 1993-1996.
Aside from the environmental problems created by the remaining local industrial activity (which after all provides meaningful jobs to the region), Natrona faces other serious challenges. Earlier this year it was barely spared a future of isolation when the Port Authority decided not to cut the only bus route connecting the town to the larger Allegheny region. But with the long term future of public transportation in the county still uncertain, this temporary stay may have only a minimal effect in stemming the tide of population migration from Natrona. We noticed a large number of derelict and abandoned properties along the streets at the center of town. There is a grassroots organization (provocatively) named "Natrona Comes Together", which is working to identify specific houses for demolition. County leaders would like to raze entire blocks of degraded housing, but that presents further problems for the residents interspersed throughout the blight, who are trying to hold on to the integrity of their neighborhood.
No doubt today's community-wide sale was organized to demonstrate the spirit of the people struggling to maintain what's left of their community. M. was visibly disturbed by the condition of Natrona. She commented that this was the first time she had attended a sale of this size without finding a single thing to take home with her. Her reaction to the town was unsurprising, considering that most Pittsburgh inhabitants never find a reason to venture into such depressed and largely-forgotten hamlets in the county. I had made a previous visit to Natrona a couple of years ago to see a local band called Chai Baba. The show had been at The Vault, which was a former bank- reclaimed and operating as a local theater and community center. Charmingly, the changing room for the bands was housed in the building's walk-in safe. The Vault's proprietors were well-intentioned, but had set themselves up against some formidable obstacles. I was sad to learn of its closing.
Across the street from the shuttered building, and down an alleyway, I entered the storage/working space of an artist just entering middle age. His efforts to bring a touch of art amidst the decay was touching. He bummed a cigarette from me, saying that he couldn't run out for another pack for himself. Despite the fact that there were only a handful of broke kids browsing through his shelf of used horror and UFO-themed videos- he wasn't going to close up shop. This reluctance to abandon his post was striking, and (I believe) indicative of the hardscrabble tenacity of the remaining townspeople. Considering Natrona's history, the term "salt-of-the-earth" comes to mind.