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...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

The audience in the darkened auditorium grew restless. Those in front turned around to see what was happening.

If only the hydrogen had escaped, the disaster would not have occurred. A second circumstance produced the tragic combination.

Waiting for their next act, the actors behind the closed curtain heard the noise in the auditorium. Someone pulled the curtain apart and several actors moved to the front of the stage. In the confusion, one of them kicked over a kerosene footlight, and a small fire started on the stage. It then spread to the kerosene tank.

Already restless because of the hissing, the audience saw the fire and panicked. Many rushed to the auditorium stairway at the back of the room. The first group was able to get down the stairs to safety. But since the doors opened inward, the pressure of more people against the doors forced them shut. The people were trapped.

While the small fire on the stage added an element of danger, it did not produce the disaster. If only the small kerosene fire had occurred, many more the audience would have been able to get out of the auditorium safely, in spite of the problems with the door. There was a secondary stairway beside the stage and two fire escapes that were not marked and people had to scramble out the windows to get to them. But with more time, those trapped at the auditorium doors could have changed their escape route.

Within 30 minutes of the start of the kerosene fire, the deadly combination of the escaped hydrogen and the open flame, produced an explosion in the air spelled disaster for those still trapped inside. Miraculously, 200 people had gotten out of the building before the explosion.

Quickly, the town’s two fire companies were called. Volunteers from the nearest company, only three blocks away from the fire scene, decided not to spend time getting horses from the livery stable, but pulled the hose cart themselves. Unfortunately, the street, formerly dirt, had just been paved. The hose cart went out of control on the slippery downslope and crashed into a tree. A young firefighter, the father of two small sons, was killed in the accident.

Firefighting volunteers, without their hosecart, rushed to the burning building, where they helped a few of the final survivors get out. By the time the second firefighting crew arrived, the whole building was burning out of control.

The firefighters turned to a neighboring town for help. A steamer and hose cart were loaded onto flatbeds and taken by train for the 10-mile trip to Boyertown. The 50 firefighters who came along declared the fire under control by 4:15 A.M. Tuesday. They also stayed through the day to help recover the bodies. Their firemen’s ladders were used to bring the dead from the second-floor ruins.

The fire made the front page of all the Philadelphia newspapers. By Tuesday morning, the town was filled with reporters and photographers. The morbidly curious and the casual sightseer mingled with grieving relatives in a week of turmoil. By Thursday, as many as a dozen funerals were being held each day. The following Sunday, the community held a service for the 25 who could not be identified. They were buried with dignity in the town cemetery less than a half mile from the fire scene.

Even before the inquest was held, the fire produced safety concerns throughout the state. Two days after the fire, Philadelphia’s mayor asked his fire marshal to check all theaters for unsafe conditions. The Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution to close all second-floor theaters if they posed a danger.

By the time of the inquest two weeks after the fire, the reporters and photographers had gone. The disaster was no longer news. The coroner’s jury listened to 50 witnesses in two days of testimony, some of it confused and contradictory. Deliberating four hours, the jury reached its decision. It declared two people criminally negligent: the play’s producer, for hiring an incompetent projector operator; and the state factory inspector, for failing to enforce existing fire safety laws. Neither was ever indicted in a court of law.