Joseph Downer & His Organs: An Introduction

1920 Diapason photo

The 1788 Downer organ as it appeared on display at the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, in early 1920, from the April 1920 issue of The Diapason. This is the only known image of the organ with the now-missing bellows pedal. 4

A Word of Welcome

This is a research website principally concerned with the only known extant organ built by Joseph Downer, possibly the earliest native-built organ as far west as Pittsburgh, constructed in 1788. The site is provided by The Harmony Society, the Western Pennsylvania chapter of The Organ Historical Society, as a research and information resource for the historic organ community. The Downer organ is owned and preserved by The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh, and The Harmony Society is indebted to them for access, cooperation, and assistance in research. Harmony Society members who have been active in this research and documentation are Philip Maye, James Stark, and Rev. John Cawkins.

While the life and pipe organs of Joseph Downer are undergoing active research and investigation, enough can be said presently to serve as an introduction to this New England native who attempted to make his living on the 18th-century Western Pennsylvania frontier as an organbuilder before there was a local market for the instrument. While his opus list is small - two chamber organs, and possibly one for a church - at least one of his instruments survives 1. The following is a summary of previously published accounts and personally conducted research; fuller documentation and notes will accompany future print articles.

A Thumbnail Life of Joseph Downer

Joseph Downer was born on 28 January 1767 in Brookline, MA, the first of six children of Eliphalet and Mary (Gardner) Downer. Eliphalet was a prominent surgeon during and after the Revolutionary War, serving as a Minute Man at Lexington and as surgeon on ships including the Bonne Homme Richard, as well on the 1779 Penobscot Expedition.

Nothing is known about Joseph before he left Brookline and headed west at the age of sixteen. Considering he is best known today for building the first three pipe organs west of the Allegheny Mountains, a reasonable question is whether or not he completed an apprenticeship with one of the few organbuilders active in the Boston area before his departure, and given his age it is certainly possible. While family anecdotes tell of his ability to play the organ and his plans to build one when he reached his destination, his reasons for moving west have been something of a mystery to organ historians. His father's biography in the Downer genealogy book includes the most likely reason. While Revolutionary War pensions may not have been granted to shipboard surgeons, Eliphalet was granted "a soldier's portion of the Marietta Reserve in Ohio" for his role as Chief Surgeon on the Penobscot Expedition of 1779, 2 and Joseph appears to have left home to claim it for him. Joseph still owned unclaimed Ohio lands at the time of his will of 4 January 1838, and considered them in lieu of apprentice fees for two of his sons. Direct contact with his father and native area seems to have continued after his departure, for the same [Col.] John May who paid the majority of the cost of the organ shown here journeyed twice to the Ohio Country through Elizabeth Town and Pittsburgh, in 1788 and 1789. Both times he was accompanied by Eliphalet Downer, his sometime business partner, and Joseph accompanied them at least as far as Baltimore on the return trip in 1789.

In 1783 Joseph Downer arrived in Western Pennsylvania at the banks of the Monongahela River in what was then called New Store, "twenty miles [from downtown Pittsburgh] by water and fifteen by land." By 27 December 1787 an ad in the Pittsburgh Gazette referred to it by its new name of "Elizabeth-Town," and the center of that new settlement is now called Elizabeth, at the southern tip of Allegheny County. According to one account, he operated a store in the new town, and built at least one of his organs during his time here in the back of his store, the one shown above3. This is the organ lent to the Carnegie Museum in 1920, more of which is said on the 1788 Chamber Organ pages. He apparently never felt the urge to press on for the Ohio Country, as he married a local woman, Sarah Hall, on 1 August 1791; they would have thirteen children together. Her father was likely the Elizabeth Town resident Stephen Hall, who conducted business with Downer for many years afterwards.

In 1794 he moved to land in Washington Township, Fayette County that bordered that of his friend, Col. Edward Cook, whose stone mansion of 1772-1776 just outside of Belle Vernon is still occupied by his descendants. For this house Downer built the organ offered in 1978 to the museum in Pittsburgh, and may have built this instrument while running a store near there. He built a flour mill along a nearby stream in 1799, and in the following year assisted Cook in laying out a new town, Freeport, where the stream meets the Monongahela River; that stream is still known as Downer's Run. Downer became the first resident in 1806 of the town that was renamed Cookstown in honour of his late friend, and Fayette City a few years after his own death.

From about the time of his arrival in Fayette County until his death in 1838, Joseph Downer was a miller by trade. It is unfortunate that the surviving tax rolls for Fayette County begin with 1820; by that time his occupation is always "Miller," with no mention of organs or organbuilding. He built and owned, at one time or another, a flour mill, grist mill and saw mill, and owned for a time a cotton factory that had been erected on the first land he occupied in Washington Township. In addition to his commercially active trades, he is credited as an organist and a portrait painter. His ability to play the organ pictured above was described in 1882: "To all the country around about it was an object of curious interest, and from far and near people frequently came to see it and to hear Mr. Downer play upon it. It possessed an excellent tone and volume, and to play it was one of Downer's greatest delights." 3 As a painter, his known works were portraits of Col. and Martha Cook, George Washington, and one of himself done from a mirror. The Cook portraits are still in that family. When a biography of Cook was printed in 1941, the portrait of Washington was still extant, and its present status is unknown. Downer's self-portrait is last mentioned in the 1882 volume quoted above, and it would be interesting to know what this successful miller and not so successful organbuilder looked like.

While little is known of his first wife and their unmarried daughter, he and the former Sarah Hall were still together when he died on 14 February 1838, and some of his land deeds bear both of their names. She died in 1852, and their descendants today live in Western Pennsylvania and throughout the country.



1   In 1978, his second pipe organ, built for the home of Col. Edward Cook near Belle Vernon, PA, was still in the organbuilder's family in nearby Uniontown. It was offered at that time to the same museum who was at the time trying to find a different home for the organ described on this site, and the offer was declined.

2   Downer, David R. The Downers of America, with Genealogical Record. Newark: David R. Downer, 1900, p. 41.

3   Ellis, Franklin, editor. History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts & Co., 1882, p. 809.

4   This picture appeared in the April 1920 issue of The Diapason (pg. 16), accompanying '"The First Pipe Organ Built in the United States West of the Allegheny Mountains," by W. J. Holland, LL.D., Director of the Carnegie Museum.' The photograph is thought to have been taken where it was originally displayed, in the museum's Pennsylvania Hall, now the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Library. It was likely the editorial staff of The Diapason who whited-out the organ's surroundings. So far no photograph of the Pennsylvania Hall has been found, with or without the organ.