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Rhoads Opera House Fire
Written by Larry Roeder, Editor
2023-01-17

The pain beyond the county line

A devastating fire destroyed the Rhoads Opera House in Boyertown on Jan. 13, 1908 killing

170 people.  It was one of the worst tragedies to hit Pennsylvania in the twentieth century.

            It has been a little more than 115 years since the tragic fire at the Rhoads Opera House in Boyertown.  There are many people who never heard about the disaster that occurred in Boyertown on Jan. 13, 1908.  It was one of the worst tragedies to hit Pennsylvania in the twentieth century; one that claimed the lives of more than 170 people.

            We may be a neighboring community, across the county line, but the horror of that incident was felt in the lives of many here in the Upper Perkiomen Valley.

            The conflagration struck while more than 370 people were gathered in the second floor "Opera House" of the Rhoads building on the evening of January 13, 1908.  This was a time when theater performances were presented on stages lit with kerosene lamps and slides illuminated on calcium projectors.  Building safety and fire codes were almost non-existent.  That Monday night, those factors would contribute to a horror that created a pain felt well beyond the Boyertown limits.

            Reportedly, the panic started when a gas tube came loose from a projector causing a loud hissing sound.  Hearing the frightening sound the crowd nearest the projectionist began to rustle.  Someone on the stage pulled the curtains apart to see what was going on in the audience.  In the confusion, kerosene lamps were knocked over and fire erupted.  The devastation came quick.

Carriages, with their horses still harnessed, wait behind the Union Hotel for their owners who

attended the play at the Rhoads Opera House on Jan.13, 1908.  In many cases, those owners

never returned.

            Fire equipment from the Keystone and Friendship volunteer fire companies of Boyertown were dispatched.  They called Pottstown's Good Will Fire Company for additional manpower and equipment.  A steam engine was sent by train to help fight the fire.  Carelessness, an overcrowded theater, locked doors, and poorly marked exits were just a few of the causes of this catastrophe.  But, this story is about the effect it had on some lives closer to the banks of the Perkiomen.

            John Graver was a young worker at the Boyertown Eisenlohr Cigar factory.  He was the nephew of Pennsburg resident Daniel Graver.  John was a volunteer fireman with the Keystone Fire Company of Boyertown.  When the volunteers received the alarm, they decided to pull the hose cart to the fire instead of spending time fetching and hooking up the horses.  They had done this many times and it seemed practical since the fire was only three blocks away.  John took a position at the left front and the volunteers raced toward the scene.  However, while rushing to the fire they lost control of the wagon and hit a tree.  John was crushed between the hose cart and the tree.  He was picked up and carried to a nearby doctor's office.  Even with his pain and injuries he encouraged his comrades to go on to the fire and not mind him.  He died at the doctor's office.

            Noted Pennsburg businessman Dr. J. G. Mensch lost his great-nephew Oscar in the fire.  Oscar was supposed to be at Pottstown Business College, but decided to stay in Boyertown and attend the play.  In some cases entire families perished like Robert Tagert and his wife Ellen, who together with their daughter Rosa Ellen died in the inferno.  Robert was the brother of well-known Upper Hanover Township farmer James Tagert. 

            East Greenville Justice of the Peace F. M. Keller lost his sister Caroline, and his niece Alice in the disaster.  Stella Heimbach, sister of East Greenville Ice Dealer Isaac Heimbach, perished along with her fiancée Irwin Clemmer.  Irwin was the brother of Calvin Clemmer, the night shift telegraph operator at the Pennsburg railroad station. 

A monument to the unidentified victims of the Rhoads Opera House fire stands in the Fair-

view Cemetery in Boyertown.  Among the names inscribed on it are Robert, Ellen, and Rosa

Ellen Tagert.

            Perkiomen School's Rev. Dr. O. S. Kriebel conducted the funeral services for Jacob Johnson, brother of Rev. E. E. S. Johnson of Upper Hanover Township.  Jacob died a few days after the fire of burns he received while rescuing his wife Elizabeth.  Another victim was Nora Herbst, sister of Mrs. Harvey Clemmer, of East Greenville.  Nora originally had a ticket for the Tuesday night show.  Her employer needed one more ticket for the Tuesday show so that his family could attend together.  She traded with him and attended the ill-fated Monday night performance.

            An impressively researched account of the disastrous fire and the events surrounding it can be found in "A Town in Tragedy – The Boyertown Opera House Fire Volume II".  Published in 1992, the book was written by Mary Jane Schneider.  Schneider was the editor of the "Boyertown Area Times" from 1966 through 1989.  She also penned an earlier publication, "Midwinter Mourning – The Boyertown Opera House Fire Volume I," in 1991.

            The flames that devoured the Rhoads Opera House burned themselves out before sunrise the next morning.  It was a cold January dawn, and ice covered much of the ruins when the search and rescue teams entered the inside of the destroyed building.  The shock and disbelief at the loss was quickly replaced by horror.  Firemen found bodies stacked on top of each other.  Piled six feet high in some places, many were wedged together so tight that pry bars were needed to separate them.  Most of them were burned beyond recognition.  Some of them were found near the exits, just a few feet from safety.

            Workers wrapped the bodies in blankets and tied them to boards.  They were then lowered on the fire company's ladders and taken to a temporary morgue that was hastily set up across Philadelphia Avenue in the D. C. Brumbach furniture store.  It would be another day before the task of identifying those who died in the conflagration could begin.  Those who could not be identified were buried in a common grave at the Union Cemetery. 

            Of the bodies removed from the ruins, one newspaper reporter wrote "… 112 were females and 45 males, while 15 were so badly burned that sex could not be distinguished.  Twenty-two bodies are those of children…"


 

 

 

 

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