The Forgotten Fire

Mary Jane Schneider recounts a 1908 fire that claimed 170 lives in a small Pennsylvania town.


1908 Pennsylvania Opera House Blaze Claimed 170 Lives In 1908, a fire in a crowded auditorium in the small town of Boyertown resulted in Pennsylvania’s greatest fire disaster. One hundred seventy people died. The Boyertown Opera House fire is listed in the World Almanac as one of the major...


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1908 Pennsylvania Opera House Blaze Claimed 170 Lives

In 1908, a fire in a crowded auditorium in the small town of Boyertown resulted in Pennsylvania’s greatest fire disaster. One hundred seventy people died. The Boyertown Opera House fire is listed in the World Almanac as one of the major fires of the 20th century.

As a result of this fire, doors in public buildings now open outward and fire escapes must be floor level and clearly marked.

Yet the fire is largely forgotten, buried in the yellowed pages of old newspapers and the fading memories of aging townspeople.

The circumstances are tragic enough: A sudden fire erupted in an overcrowded second-floor entertainment hall. Within 30 minutes, 165 people, still trapped in the building, suffocated. As the fire raged unchecked, the victims were so terribly burned that it took five days for relatives to identify them. Twenty-five never were identified. Of the 200 who escaped, four died later of their injuries. One firefighter was killed when a hose cart crashed on the way to the fire scene.

The disaster struck at the heart of country town of 2,500 people. No family was left untouched.

how did it happen?

What caused the fire and why did so many people die so quickly? A set of circumstances, a combination that had not occurred before and was never repeated, produced a unique situation. Hydrogen gas, which had escaped from a calcium light projector in the auditorium, in addition to a small kerosene fire on stage, produced a sudden explosion of fire in the air. Because the doors opened inward, many in the audience, in panic, were trapped at the entrance to the second-floor auditorium. The press of the crowd resulted in a fiery prison from which they could not escape.

On Monday, Jan. 13, 1908, the small Pennsylvania Dutch town of Boyertown was alive with excitement about the play to be presented at the Opera House that evening. A traveling company brought the play to town and was using local people as actors and actresses. The site of the play, the Opera House, was part of a substantial three-story brick building. The first floor contained a bank and a hardware store. An entertainment hall, the “Opera House,” was on the second floor, while the third floor was used as a lodge meeting hall. Electricity had not yet come to Boyertown in 1908. The building was lit by kerosene, and kerosene footlights edged the stage.

On that Monday night, 312 people crowded into the auditorium. As eager families and friends climbed the familiar stairs from a central doorway to the second-floor auditorium, they had no inkling of the disastrous circumstances lay ahead.

As part of the traveling show, slides were shown between the acts of the play. The traveling company had brought along a calcium light projector, known as a Ster-eopticon. Calcium light projectors were in common use for “magic lantern” shows in communities without electricity. Their light was produced by combining compressed hydrogen and oxygen. The compressed gases from the tanks flowed into the projector through small tubes. An experienced operator was needed to set up the projector properly and to combine the gas in the right mix. If one of the tubes came loose from the tank during the show, the light would fail and the escaping gas would produce a loud hissing noise.

A problem had arisen. The projector’s regular operator had not arrived in town with the traveling company. In his place was a young man who had been given only a few days’ training on the complicated machine. It was his first night on the job. It also turned out to be his last.

As he was showing slides between acts, the unthinkable happened. The tube to one of the tanks got loose and the gas escaped. Through a series of strange circumstances, it was never determined at the inquest which tank had the loose tube. But because of the nature of the fire, it is presumed to have been the hydrogen tank. The loosened tube produced a loud, hissing sound.

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