Joseph Downer: Toward an Opus List

Organs Listed in Published Sources

What amounts to Downer's Opus List was published twice in the nineteenth century that we know of. The first is Ellis, 1882 1; the second is Downer, 1900 2, published that year but completed by 1898. Their focus was different - the first, a county-wide history with special biographical emphasis on prominent men, the second a family genealogy, and the resulting descriptions reflect this. All of the twentieth century written references that are currently known quote the later work. This is important, as that book is at this time the single source for the church organ, but the earlier work, while a less likely source, has significantly more detail in Downer's arrival and early years in Western Pennsylvania, and with descriptions of the first two instruments. The following table compares the two sources.


Comparison of Known 19th Century Published "Opus Lists"
Franklin Ellis (1882)   David R. Downer (1898 - pub. 1900)
Joseph Downer Elizabeth Town Chamber 1 Chamber Belle Vernon Edward Cook
Edward Cook Belle Vernon Chamber 2 Church Brownsville Catholic Church
  3 Chamber Fayette City Joseph Downer


One of the challenges of researching the organs of an 18th century organbuilder is their chronology. We know from the quoting of Downer's ledger that the organ lent to the Carnegie Museum (now Carnegie Museum of Natural History) was built in 1788, which places its construction and his residence at the time in Elizabeth Town (now Elizabeth). Did he build either of the other organs mentioned in the Downer genealogy after he left that town, or were all of his organs built in one place? Was the second organ built in his "hours of leisure" soon after moving to Washington Township? When or where did he build the organ for the Brownsville Catholic Church? Was it really his intention to make his living in organbuilding, only realizing after he settled here that there wasn't a local market for organs yet? While these questions await answers, what is known about the organs attributed to Downer is given below.


Previously Described Organs


Chamber organ, Joseph Downer, Elizabeth Town, PA: 1788: location history partly known, organ extant

This organ is described in detail on the 1788 Chamber Organ pages, but it is useful to say here how the organ documented on this website is identified with the one Downer is known to have kept himself and passed through his family. This is important, as some sources (a newspaper article, a Cook biography, and Cook family tradition) claim that the organ that travelled to the museum in Pittsburgh was the same one built for the Cook mansion pictured below.

Two features of the 1788 organ rule this out: its size and the absence of a set of chimes. The organ owned by the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society is a 5-rank instrument of approximately 5' W x 4' D x 8 1/2' H. These dimensions are essentially the same given by Ellis in 1882 of the organ in the home of one of Downer's daughters, the widowed Clarissa Thompson, who returned to Fayette City from Kansas in 1876, and are the same as the organ lent to the Carnegie Museum in 1920. That same book describes the current status (at that time) of the organ for Col. Cook discussed below, which was then in the Monongahela City home of Eliphalet Downer, not Joseph's father but one of his grandsons. Its original location in the former Parlor of the Cook mansion would only allow a smaller, perhaps 2-rank organ. While not all of the 5 ranks of wooden pipes for the 1788 organ are extant, the compactly laid out windchest has no provision for "a chime of bells, " something specifically mentioned in the 1882 description of Col. Cook's organ given below.

As for the possibility of the organ being that for the Brownsville Catholic Church, there is no mention of any ecclesiastical connection for the organ in the accompanying ledger notations. Both printed sources listed in the table above state that Downer kept one of the organs for himself, and in each book the organ was at publication time in the home of one his daughters in Fayette City, though different daughters owned it in the two time periods. With the dimensions given by the 1882 volume for the larger organ being roughly correct for the one now under research, it is almost certain that this is the organ that passed through Downer's family and was lent to the Carnegie Museum in 1920.


Chamber organ, Col. Edward Cook, Belle Vernon, PA: no date: original location extant, organ status unknown


Cook portrait Cook mansion Cook organ original location
Col. Edward Cook -
from Ellis 1882
Col. Edward Cook's stone mansion, Belle Vernon, 1772-1776 original location of organ in parlor (now kitchen)



Shown above are the Cook mansion of 1772-1776, and its original owner, Edward Cook. This portrait, included in the 1882 Fayette County history, is believed to be based on Joseph Downer's painted portrait. Their business, legal and personal dealings go back at least to the late 1780's and continued through Cook's death in 1812.

I visited this house in March 2007, and while his descendant now living in it has installed a new cabinet where the organ stood, he took rough measurements of the impression it left in the still-original wooden floor. As stated above, the current Kitchen/former Parlor would only allow an organ of approximately half the size of the 1788 instrument, both in case dimensions and number of ranks. It seems to confirm the one known description of it, from Ellis' 1882 work: "Mr. Downer constructed also for Col. Cook a small pipe organ containing a chime of bells, now in the possession of Eliphalet Downer, of Monongahela City."

The precise date and specification of this organ are still unknown, but it was offered to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (formerly called Carnegie Museum) in 1978 by one of Downer's descendants then in Uniontown, 20 miles to the southeast of Cook's stone mansion. Unfortunately, the museum was then attempting to find the first organ's loaners or their descendants and find a new home for it, and declined the offer. The ability to compare two organs of an organbuilder, even if different in size and specification, is invaluable and preferable to having a single instrument to extrapolate that builder's "typical" or "usual" design and working methods. It is hoped that this instrument can be located and documented in the near future.


Organs of Uncertain Documentation


Church organ: Catholic Church, Brownsville, PA: no date: building and organ unknown

As is seen in the table above, the only known mention of this organ is in The Downers of America. One of the best sources of early church as well as county history for Fayette County, History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, not only omits mention of this organ, but makes no mention of organs for any church described therein. As a result, it neither proves nor disproves the organ's existence, as the two chamber organs were mentioned and described in the latter volume partly due to their survival at the time it was written.



1  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.

2   Downer, David R. The Downers of America, with Genealogical Record. Newark: David R. Downer, 1900, p. 74.