The Downey House Fire: Locals Rally Christmas Spirit in Defiance of Tragedy

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.

Downey House; circa 1880-1900; item no. WBGB-AN001-0020, Waynesburg Borough Office Collection, Greene Connections Archives Project (www.GreeneConnections.com).

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.

Harvey Call II [1903-1925], killed fighting the Downey House fire, 23 December 1925 – son of Clyde Morris Call and Clara Martin; circa 1920-1925; item no. MORR-AN001-0012, Lynne Gough Collection, Greene Connections Archives Project (www.GreeneConnections.com).

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.)


Sources:

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.

Rev. Luther Axtell Marriage Record Ledger, 1840s-1880s

By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist

Rev. Luther Axtell [1820-1886] was a Cumberland Presbyterian minister in southwestern Pennsylvania. His rural circuit meant that he preached and performed the sacred ceremonies of the church across county lines, touching the lives of families living in Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties, Pennsylvania, as well as across state lines into Ohio and West Virginia. Among his many duties as a traveling clergyman, Luther performed roughly 200 marriages, which he recorded in a ledger. In 2016, Matt W. Cumberledge, now the Executive Director of the Greene County Historical Society, discovered and obtained this ledger when it was sold at auction. Matt digitized and shared the ledger pages with the Greene Connections: Greene County, Pennsylvania Archives Project. In 2020-2021, volunteers transcribed the ledger’s entries dating from the 1840s-1880s through the Greene Connections Archives crowdsourcing project. Today, both the digital images of the original ledger pages and the typed transcript are available to view and download in the Greene Connections Archives. Our team will now index and annotate the transcript as research continues.

It just so happens that this early recordkeeper and genealogist was my fourth-great-granduncle – what an inspiration! My personal thanks to Matt for finding and sharing this amazing record for local family history and to all the volunteers who helped us to make this typed transcript available.

Previews of the transcript and original images are below. Visit and bookmark the ledger in the Greene Connections Archives to monitor updates as the research moves forward!

Transcript (Preview)

Digital Images of Original Pages (Preview)

Let us know if you find your family in Luther’s ledger!

Finding the Women in Our History

By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist

FINDING THE WOMEN IN OUR HISTORY – FEATURING GREENE COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS VIDEO PRESENTATION): Watch and learn as we delve into the past with the women from our local history and family trees. Understand the challenges involved in uncovering their stories. Celebrate the details – big and small – that the records reveal about their lives, families, and communities.

This presentation focuses on Greene County, Pennsylvania, but the lessons learned from these local women will help us to find our female ancestors wherever they lived.

Surnames in the presentation case studies include: Bell, Bowlby, Boyd, Burbridge, Daugherty, Davis, Garber, Grinage, Grove, Hertzog, Hunnell, Kent, Lazear, Mariner, McDonald, Meek, Miller, Moore, Myers, Pyle, Rogers, Spragg, Staggers, Stephenson, Taylor, Titus, Wade, Wood, Workman, Worley.

More families are represented in the images. All images are available in the Greene Connections Archives.

Love Stories in Shades of Greene

By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist

Originally published in Greene Speak in two parts, February 2005 and February 2006. Updated July 2020.

Here is an old favorite revived from our Greene Speak column series. Without their love stories, for better or worse, we would not be here today. Tell us, how did your ancestors meet?


Love at First Sight

Frances Cook was born in Greene County, Pennsylvania, in 1887, but moved as a young woman with her family to Columbiana, Ohio. Ties to Greene County remained strong. Frances returned often to visit friends and relatives. On one such occasion Frances sang with her hostess in the church choir. When John Madison Livingood caught sight of the musical guest, he turned to a friend and said, “I’m going to marry that girl.” They married 4 March 1914 in Columbiana, Ohio, then returned to Greene County to raise their family.

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The House That Cyrus Built

By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist

On June 7, 1870, Cyrus W. Pyle, a 26-year old carpenter, was enumerated by the Census taker in the household of Simon Rinehart, a stone cutter, in Waynesburg, Greene County, Pennsylvania. Compared to Simon Rinehart with thousands of dollars in real and personal estate, Cyrus had just personal estate valued at $200 and a teenage, carpenter’s apprentice boarding with him in the Rinehart house.[1] Cyrus was also a newlywed, having married Susan E. Hertzog in neighboring Fayette County, Pennsylvania, on 28 April 1870,[2] but the young couple were living separately as late as 12 August 1870, when the Census taker reached Susan at her parents’ house near Masontown, Fayette County.[3]

The Rineharts were the artisans behind many of the fine tombstones in Green Mount Cemetery, so it is interesting that their tenant, Cyrus W. Pyle, purchased a block of lots immediately across the street facing that burial ground on 1 April 1875.[4] Cyrus’s property in the Flenniken Addition of Waynesburg, contained lots 53 and 54. When Cyrus sold the property on 25 January 1882, there was a notable change of language in the Deed description to include buildings with the land.[5]

Close up of Cyrus Pyle’s property across from Green Mount Cemetery cropped from the map of Waynesburg in Caldwell’s Illustrated, Historical, Centennial Atlas Of Greene County, Pennsylvania, 1876. Digital image courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection.
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Civil War Letters in a Family Bible

By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist

Two letters tucked into the pages of a family Bible, reveal how a family pulled together to bring home a fallen soldier.

The Bible once belonged to William Mitchell Clemens [1851-1938] and his wife, Elizabeth Jane Grimes [1854-1937]. The couple likely bought or received the Bible at the time of their marriage in 1872, the same year the Bible was published. On it’s decorative pages, William and Elizabeth recorded the date of their wedding, births and deaths of their children, and most helpfully to the extended Clemens cousins, they pasted in a list of births and deaths for William’s parents and siblings, taking the data back the tree another generation. It is this list that corresponds to the two letters also preserved within the Bible’s pages. William’s parents, John Charles Clemens [1804-1873] and Louisa Hupp [1815-1875], are recorded with their seven children. Included on this list is their son John Hupp Clemens [1839-1864] who served in Company A, 100th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. John was killed in action 17 June 1864 at Petersburg, Virginia.

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The Long and Sad Goodbye: World War I Families Wait to Bury Their Fallen Soldiers

By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist

A CENTURY AGO, on Memorial Day 1920, most WWI families were still waiting to bring their sons home for burial. There were many factors involved in the long delay.

At US military bases in 1918-1919, flu deaths were followed by funerals at home in a much more reasonable period of time since international travel was not required. However, the volume and chaos of the flu epidemic still brought about delays and restrictions for those families.

In the war zone of Europe, sick or wounded soldiers who spent their final days at military hospitals were buried in graves organized nearby and so were often brought home earlier than their comrades who fell on the battlefield, even if their deaths occurred later in the war.

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Flu 1918: Greene County, Pennsylvania

By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist

We are living through tough times, but we have been here before. The genealogist’s approach to history is to learn about it from the local level outward. Our ability to relate, empathize, understand, and simply be interested, increases when the history is tangible: places, people, and events that we know personally. Local history reduces our degree of separation from past events, even though we are separated by time.

Knowing that our ancestors experienced similar circumstances and endured, makes it easier for us to do the same. We are here today because they survived their hard days.

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The Census – The Personal Public Record

By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist

Originally published in Greene Speak, January 2007. Updated December 2019.

The decade-by-decade details that have been cataloged by United States Census takers since 1790, culminate in one of the most research-rich and personally insightful record sets regarding the everyday existence of our ancestors and communities. Available for public perusal for years 1790 to 1940 (excepting the damaged 1890 entries), census records indicate: where and with whom our relatives lived; when and where they were born; how they earned a living; the languages spoken at home; the values of their real and personal property; and, all of this for each of their neighbors too. As incredible as this information is, the thing that is really exceptional about the Census, is that it goes a step further – a step taken when the Census taker walked through our ancestors’ doors and into their homes.

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She Watches from the Grave

By Candice Buchanan, Greene Connections Archivist

Originally published by Candice Buchanan as a contributing chapter in Supernatural Lore of Pennsylvania: Ghosts, Monsters and Miracles, Thomas White, Editor (Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2014), 35.

The Martin Mausoleum in Green Mount Cemetery. (Photo by Candice Buchanan, 2014.)

Far from its main entrance, where the gravel road winds near the back gate, stands Green Mount Cemetery‘s haunted mausoleum. It is not especially large, but it is stately, with a small porch supported by four pillars. Its heavy, gray stone is contrasted by a tempting patch of color within. To get a good look, a passerby must climb the stairs to the narrow porch and come nose-to-nose with the crypt’s glass doors to peer between the metal bars. On each side are four drawers, occupied and identified accordingly. On the back wall, in vivid hues and artisan craftsmanship, an elderly woman stares back from a stained-glass window portrait. Her expression is stern, but it is her eyes that are haunting. As you study her, she studies you back. There is an eerie feeling of being watched. According to legend, her eyes actually move to follow visitors until they are safely out of range. Local lore explains that she holds this eternal vigil because her husband wronged her in life and she is forever watching him in death. Other versions say that she guards her family from beyond the grave, with her eyes not only on anyone who approaches from the outside, but also on everyone entombed on the inside. Children who play hide-and-seek games in the cemetery see her both as protector, using the mausoleum as safe base, and as opponent, identifying her as the threat to either hide or run from.

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