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Robert Magee Downie: A Reminiscence in Irony

Milestones Vol 28. No. 1

by Rex Downie, Jr.

When I was quite small, my parents would pack me off to the College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church, with some confidence that I could navigate that distance and not lose my bearings, for it was about three hundred yards south of our home, the old Partington House at 3328 College Avenue which we'd moved into in 1942.

R. M. Downie on the porch of his College Hill home about 1916.

After services, I would often be greeted by a soft voiced man with a kindly smile, a nimbus of white hair about his head proclaiming what even my youthful mind could recognize as considerable age. He was Charles Marston Lee, a Professor of Greek and later President of Geneva College. He would bend slightly to my short stature, extend a hand, and shake mine, always leaving a shining dime in my palm.

Often he would say, "Rex, your grandfather R M Downie was a great man. He kept the bars off of College Hill." I was then not sure what a bar rightly was, for my father was reading Kit Carson and Daniel Boone stories to me at that time, but I knew Dr. Lee was not speaking of the black furry kind. And, to this date, no liquor license has been granted for the space between 24th and 47th Streets. Those streets now embrace the 5th and 6th Wards of Beaver Falls, but back in RM's day College Hill was a separate borough.

But I was intrigued by this figure who had slipped off into history, for he'd died in 1926, ten years before my birth, yet his name often came up in family talks and reunions, always associated with Keystone Driller, power shovels and drills. As I matured, a process I'm still engaged in, people kept sending me odds and ends of photographs, articles and other notes of RM's existence, for he was quite active in Christian activities and business as well. So allow me to report certain of the events he was involved in, some reflecting a subtle irony in God's hand in his life. Parenthetically, I should report here that I practiced law in Beaver Falls for 35 years, doing criminal and civil trial work and various business matters including the transfer of liquor licenses, so was notorious enough in my own right to draw up some of the documents that have come my way.

Apparently, he bore a role in beginning the College Hill Congregation(1)(of what I now consider the Renaissance and Baroque Theological Society), illegal under Church Law, however, an interesting aspect of Presybyterianisms' traditional devotion to Church splitting(2). In his youth he graduated from Geneva in 1883, then began drilling wells in Butler County by the kick-down method. Being Scots he had the traditional aversion to work and devised a machine to do it, the first "portable drill" in well drilling history. He began drilling to earn money to attend seminary, but the venture took off commercially in the 1880s and became The Keystone Driller.(3) It developed production of drills, power shovels, and deep well pumps. By the late 1920s it employed over 500 men and had gross sales in excess of 2.5 million dollars, so RM was, because of that, a "public figure".

While the early Scots settlers found that whiskey was easier to transport horseback to Philadelphia than corn, and were the instigators of the famous "Whiskey Rebellion," the fanatic opposition to liquor of Carrie Nation and her ilk had spread across the land in the 1870s and infected many denominations despite the fact that Christ Himself made wine for a wedding party at Cana, and set it at table for communion. So the Prohibitionist movement was alive and well in the time I now turn to, and one of its chief advocates was the Women's Christian Temperance Movement.

One article (quoted above) credits RM with being a leader in circulating petitions against the granting of various liquor licenses on College Hill, doubtless earning him the reputation transmitted to me by Dr. Lee. The Temperance Movement was very powerful then, and culminated with the election of a "Dry Judge," a hilarious appellation in my experience as a lawyer.

His oldest daughter, Regina M. Downie practiced medicine in Lansdowne, Pa. for fifty odd years, and we, Arla(my wife) and three children, lived with her for various periods while I attended law school Much of what follows comes from discussions we had on her front porch on various summer evenings in 1963-1965.

RM, however, was such a fervent advocate of "Temperance" (4) that he belonged to the National Reform Association, a group strongly advocative of the "temperance" position. Thus he, apparently, was instrumental in inviting a noted temperance speaker to Geneva College as an ardent advocate of the cause, for a meeting of that association. It was held in the "chapel" in Old Main, a smallish auditorium with stage and balcony, and stained glass windows reminiscent of a house of worship. Well, "Vale," RM's oldest son, somehow dissented (a famous Presbyterian act) and thought it a good jest to tell that he hung a quarter stick of dynamite on a string behind the huge purple drape that then hung on the stage and behind the speakers podium. With fuse attached, somehow Vale timed the big bang to a high point in the speaker's address and when it exploded the huge heavy drape billowed out, descending on audience and speaker alike, in company of a cloud of dust which had been gathering for 40 odd years in the various nooks and crannies of the place. This so interrupted the speaker's train of thought that RM leapt upon the stage and cried out "I will pay $10,000 dollars to the person who brings the perpetrator of this awful deed to justice." Well, Regina said, softly, when I queried her, "No-one ever told him," so, as a father and now a grand father, I wonder what devious events lurk for the telling of children and grandchildren after I am gone. But that's another matter.

Then, tragedy struck, and while I see a lot of irony in it, there was a lot of human suffering and death in it as well.

RM and his wife Martha Vale and family often went to Pittsburgh for a play or concert, going up by train and returning to the College Hill Station at the foot of College Hill, where Pettler's used machinery disposition site now dwells in the old P&LE Railroad roundhouse. Even in my day, 1950 & on, there were many daily commuter trains to Pittsburgh, but now there are none. Robert and Martha had moved into a frame home on the corner of 32nd St. and 4th Ave. on College Hill, now a parking lot for the College. In 1907 they built the large orange brick house Alumni Hall that now stands on the south west corner of 32nd St. and College Ave., and is the property of Geneva College.

On April 1, 1908, shortly after 1:00 a.m. the family arrived by train from a banquet of the Geneva Alumni Association at the Schenley Hotel in Pittsburgh. They then walked from the College Station north of the present bridge to Eastvale, and took a dirt footpath that led from Beaver Falls proper up to College Hill, which was a separate borough at that time. No highway or sidewalks - or Reeves Field - or Pizza Joe's existed at that time. Workmen had dug a pit ten feet deep, 8 feet in diameter near the edge of the pathway and covered it with loose boards. At the bottom of the hole was a badly rusted gas line. A lighted kerosene lantern hung nearby.

"In crossing the rickety covering of the excavation Mr. Downie and his wife fell through the boards and in failing broke the rusty pipe. The excavation was immediately filled with gas. A member of the party, unaware of the presence of gas, picked up the lantern and held it over the excavation to discover what had happened. The gas was ignited and the pit became a furnace." (5)

Members of the party, Rev. R.H Martin, Rev. Henry George, and Livingston Matheney undertook a rescue. R.H. Martin was able to reach RM's hand and hauled him out, badly burned, as were most of the rescuers. Vale Downie was then let down in the pit by his legs until he could grasp his mother's hands, and she was extracted. She died 13 days later. Vale further reports regarding RM : "It is doubtful whether he was ever entirely free from pain for many years following this accident." My Aunt Regina later doctored her father and reported (6) to me that the family doctor had told him he would need drugs to allow him to handle the pain. RM gutted it out for several days. The doctor prescribed morphine, but RM felt he could become addicted to it. The doctor said the only other remedy was alcohol - whiskey- to which RM turned for succor for five or six years, so a" barrel on the back porch of the brick house was always filled with empty whiskey bottles," said my Aunt Regina, and no one argued with her.

Now here lies, in my view, a sublime irony. Here is the man, a staunch and vociferous advocate of Prohibition now turning to liquor, "demon rum," for relief from pain. And the pain was such that he relieved it in no small way.

Let me say here that I wish no criticism or irreverence for my grandfather or my Uncle Vale to emerge from this article. My sole purpose here is to tell an ironic tale, remembering that truth and honesty are the core of Christian witness, but the focus is on the ironies emerging in that period of history.

Since 2009 the appearance of College Hill has changed
and the "bend" has been removed.

One more point. The article quoted above refers to "those considered respected citizens." This attitude of mind was a priggish self-righteousness that educated and successful people fell into at that time - and this - and set up a kind of superficial aristocracy in no way consistent with the Gospel they mostly proclaimed. Check the book of James on this.

So, in closing we see a great irony arise, in that this rightly revered man, who had "kept the bars off of College Hill" and was a creative business leader, likely made up for that injustice by consuming enough alcohol to justly balance the matter out.

The Lord's ways are mysterious and past finding out.

"Under the Brook's License Law it was necessary to have a number of signatures to the application for license to run a saloon. Mr R.M. Downie, a well known business man of Beaver Falls, in viewing the signatures to applications for license, was astonished and surprised to find the names of prominent business men, church members, and those considered respected citizens, on the applications. He conceived the idea of informing the public as to who was responsible for the saloons in the county. He copied these signatures, had them printed, provided a few boys with hammers and tacks and instructed them to post these names in prominent places. This brought threats of physical violence on Mr Downie's head. The experiment encouraged the women of the WCTU to take up the work. Needless to say this raised a great furor.... these names (of the petitions signers) were all published in the daily press."

History of the Pennsylvania Women's Christian Temperance Union, p. 22, by Linnie J. Long


(1) The medium sized Gothic building on College Ave. across from McCartney Library on the Geneva Campus.

(2) On College Hill there are still brick churchers and stone churchers as a result of this.

(3) If you punch in Keystone Driller on a web search, you will discover a site set up by a Mr. Sam Pees of Meadville that has a fairly complete history of Keystone. It's worth reading. Apparently, RM was a natural mechanical genius.

(4) The term actually means moderation or care in use of alcohol, but with the fanaticism that imbued the movement, it actually meant "total abstinence." Ironically the cure was worse than the disease, for most observers comment that it was the Temperance Movement that propelled the Cosa Nostra, the Mob, into the power position of bootlegging that "established" it as an illegal institution of the land.

(5) Quoted from "Story of the Keystone Driller," p. 101, by J. Vale Downie, who was present at the scene.

(6) Porch conversation at 59 Owen Ave, Lansdowne, Pa., with Regina Downie, MD.