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The Day the School Burned
Written by Larry Roeder, Editor
2021-02-16

            Many of today's volunteer firefighters undergo intense training and receive certifications vital to saving lives and properties and by doing so help keep the cost of your fire insurance down.

            It is an ongoing evolution that changes how new hazards are identified and

A dangerous fire nearly cost the borough of Pennsburg

their school building.  Heroic efforts of a young fire

company saved the building, but almost proved tragic

for some of the volunteers.

more effective methods and equipment are developed to keep everybody safe.

            Nearly 125 years ago, local fire companies were just being formed and were in their infant stages.  There were wagons, buckets, axes, a few hoses and ladders, and firefighters equipped with little more than the shirts on their backs.  There were municipal water systems with antiquated hydrants and you had to hope your wagon carried enough hose to reach from that water source to the fire.

            Back then, there was little hope of saving a structure from the devastation of a major fire.

            The Pennsburg Public School building was constructed around 1890 on Main Street to replace a school building that was located about a block south, next to the Pennsburg Union Church.

            Originally built as a one-story building it went under many changes, including the addition of a second story in its early years.  The school's prized possession was a donation of more than 200 books collected by the Goshenhoppen Library Association in the 1870s.  When the building was erected, the books were presented to the public school.

            On May 23, 1907, nearly 10 years after Pennsburg's volunteer fire company was organized, a disastrous fire broke out in the Pennsburg Public School building.  It was one that would challenge the volunteers, nearly causing serious injury or worse.

            At the time, the Pennsburg Fire Company's firefighting apparatus consisted of a

The original home of the Pennsburg Fire Company served

as the borough's town hall.  Pictured in front of the fire-

house in this 1910 era photo is the company's hose cart

(left) and on the right is the ladder wagon. 

hand-drawn hose cart and a hand-drawn ladder wagon.  Both items were purchased in 1898 from W. W. Wunder of Reading, PA.  Using horses to pull the wagons only occurred for parades.  The horses used didn't belong to the fire company and were kept in a livery stable about a block-and-a-half from the firehouse.

            It was shortly after 7 a.m. on the day of the fire when two youngsters, William Fries and Norman Ziegler,  saw smoke coming from the windows of the school.  The alarm was quickly sounded.  By the time the firefighters, with the hose cart in tow, reached the building the west side of the structure was in flames. 

            Two streams of water were quickly aimed at the fire as flames began consuming the west end of the building.  The fire threatened to raze the entire school.

            School director Charles G. Fries was running down Main Street towards the school when he noticed the ladder wagon was still in the firehouse.  He quickly summoned E. J. Wieder, Jr., and the two men pulled the wagon three blocks to the school.  The ladders carried on that wagon proved of great value in enabling the volunteers to reach the flames of the upper story of the building.

Early fire-fighting wagons were pulled by hand to the scene of fires.  Pennsburg's

firefighting apparatus consisted of a hand-drawn hose cart and a hand-drawn ladder

wagon.  Using horses to pull the wagons only occurred for parades.  The horses

used didn't belong to the fire company and were kept in a livery stable about a

block-and-a-half from the firehouse.

 

            Once at the school, Fries made his way through blinding smoke into one of the burning classrooms.  A hose line was passed to him and he began to spray water on the overpowering flames.  Suddenly, the floor beneath him gave way and he dropped through, barely able to catch the floor joists with his arms to keep from falling into the inferno below.  Harry Gerhart attempted to rescue the school director, but the floor gave way to his weight as well.  Both men pulled themselves up and retreated to the south side of the building, in the direction of Rev. George W. Lutz, the principal of the school. 

            Rev. Lutz was inside the building, holding the nozzle of a hose and applying water to the fire and protecting the retreat of Fries and Gerhart.  Shortly after both shaken volunteers reached safety, a surge in the water pressure caused the hose to hurl Rev. Lutz through the window into the schoolyard below.

            Miraculously, none of the volunteers suffered serious injuries.  The fire was extinguished 20 minutes later by the remaining volunteers, saving most of the building.

            An investigation showed that the fire started in a "smoke-pipe" in the cellar.  The furnace was located directly below the classroom that sustained the most damage.

            William Bitting, a school director who also served as the school's janitor, built a fire in the furnace about 5:30 that morning.  A blockage in the pipe could have cause debris to accumulate in the pipe and heat-up to a temperature that ignited nearby wooden floorboards.

            Four classrooms in the rear of the building were damaged in the fire.  Damage estimates were put at $1,500, about one-fourth the value of the entire school.  The four classrooms in the front of the building sustained no damage and officials announced that the fire would not interfere with the school's schedule.  The pupils who were occupying the front of the school had already completed their semester, so the ones who occupied the rear classrooms would be moved to the front for the remainder of the school year.

            But, the greatest loss was the school's library, consisting of about five hundred volumes, including the books collected by the Goshenhoppen Library Association.


 

 

 

 

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