By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist
Originally published in Greene Speak, December 2005. Updated December 2021.
Beneath a cheery holiday banner, tragic headlines led the local news on December 24, 1925.
On Christmas Eve morning, the Waynesburg Republican solemnly announced “Disastrous Fire Destroys Hotel Downey, Grossman Building and Presbyterian Church: Four Young Men, Volunteer Fire Workers, Lose Their Lives by Falling Walls. Four Others Seriously Injured.” The four young men killed while fighting the fire were: Harvey Call II, William Andrew Finch, J. Thurman Long and Joseph Rifenberg. By its next printing on December 31, the Republican announced the fifth and final casualty, Victor Hoy Silveus.
The Downey House had been a prominent feature on the southwest corner of High and Washington Streets in Waynesburg, Greene County, Pennsylvania, since it was built in 1869. Located at the present site of the Fort Jackson Building, where a plaque still hangs in honor of the five men who lost their lives, the Downey House was a hotel and shopping center with over a dozen businesses located within its walls.
The fire began in the Coney Island restaurant and was discovered about 3:30 a.m. on the morning of December 23. The fire tore through the Downey House, where the restaurant was located on the first floor, and quickly spread to the neighboring Grossman Building and then via live embers carried on strong winds to the Courthouse cupola and the Presbyterian Church. The destruction of property was estimated by local papers at near $1,000,000 and the loss of five young men, only in their 20s, was inconsolable.
However, amid the devastation of life and property, the generosity of human spirit befitting the Christmas season could be observed throughout the community.
The situation might have been much worse had it not been for the courage of the volunteer firefighters not only from Waynesburg, but also from neighboring companies who rushed to answer the call for aid, these included: East Washington, Charleroi, Fredericktown, Carmichaels, Jefferson, Buckeye Coal Company, Nemacolin, Brownsville, Masontown, Rices Landing, and Bentleyville. The men battled the fire through most of the morning, gaining control of it by about 7:00 a.m. It was noted in the Democrat Messenger on December 25, that the Rices Landing company had only recently formed and received their first truck on December 22. Not yet in receipt of a hose, they borrowed what they needed from the Frick Coal Company before departing for the fire. Despite these obstacles, the young company was the third on the scene.
Firefighters were not the only people to rush to help. Among the survivors were the hotel manager and twenty-five guests who were roused by H. C. Schreiber, a jeweler, who was working in his store when the early morning fire was discovered. Mr. Schreiber’s store, located on the first floor of the Downey House, was destroyed, incurring at least $30,000 in damages, but rather than trying to save his property he rushed immediately to the second floor to sound the alarm.
Fear of the fire spreading to more buildings was strong and compelled residents of nearby apartments to evacuate. Ordinary citizens came forward to help these people quickly remove their most dear possessions from their homes before the fire could impose.
The Downey House fire had another long-term positive impact. A lesson learned, the Waynesburg community formed the Waynesburg Volunteer Fire Company on March 4, 1926. This company replaced the department run by the borough with a group of volunteers wholly organized and trained for the single purpose of fighting fires.
(See more photographs of the Downey House.)
COVER PHOTO: Downey House and Grossman Building on the southwest corner of High and Washington Streets; circa 1905-1910; item no. WBGB-AN001-0021, Waynesburg Borough Office Collection, Greene Connections Archives Project (www.GreeneConnections.com).
Democrat Messenger, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, 25 December 1925, page 1.
G. Wayne Smith, History of Greene County, Pennsylvania, 2 volumes (Waynesburg, Pennsylvania: Cornerstone Genealogical Society, 1996), 2: 839-840.
“Disastrous Fire Destroys Hotel Downey, Grossman Building and Presbyterian Church” article, Waynesburg Republican, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, 24 December 1925, page 1, columns 1-4.
Waynesburg Republican, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, 31 December 1925, page 1.