The Rhoads Opera House Fire - Boyertown, PA
The Rhoads Opera House occupied a bank on the first floor, the opera house on the second and offices and meeting rooms on the third floor.
On January 13, 1908, members of St. John’s Lutheran Church were performing The Scottish Reformation at the Rhoads Opera House in Boyertown. There were almost 400 people in attendance for the show.
Harry Fisher turned the wrong knob on the project, leaving a loud hissing sound and gas smell which frightened the attendees. Cast members lifted the curtain to see what was going on and knocked over a kerosene lamp and started a small fire on stage.
Unfortunately what started out as a small fire that was nearly extinguished turned into a bigger fire when a gentleman moved the footlights and the framework buckled.
The audience panicked and ran towards the exits. The crowd pushed against the main entrance double doors to no avail as the doors opened inward which prevented the panicked guests from getting to safety. It is told that the greatest loss of life happened at these main doors. Many people jumped from windows when they realized the doors would not open.
171 people died in the fire - 25 of which could not be identified. Many of the men that perished in the fire were employed at the Boyertown Casket Company. 75 people were seriously injured. It was noted that the bodies were charred on the upper halves of their bodies and the lower halves were untouched by flames.
Located at: 11 South Washington Street, Boyertown, PA 19512.
Most of the deceased were taken to the schoolhouse (now Boyertown Borough Hall) for families to come and identify their loved ones. Others were taken to the Mansion House Hotel (Now Durango's Saloon) where it is said that the bodies were stacked in the basement until local morticians could come and take them.
Located at: 120 E Philadelphia Ave, Boyertown, PA 19512.
Makeshift morgues were set up in the local school and Mansion House Hotel (now Durango’s Saloon), so families could come through to identify the bodies. Clothing was placed outside of the building for families to claim from their loved ones. The school was closed for three weeks - 3 teachers and 23 students had perished in the fire.
Located at: 215 W. Philadelphia Avenue, Boyertown, PA. 19512
107 of those that died in the Rhoads Opera House are buried at Fairview Cemetery in Boyertown. Six days after the fire there was a funeral procession for the 25 unidentified bodies. Each victim rode in a horse-drawn hearse accompanied with four white-gloved pallbearers. They were laid to rest in individual graves at Fairview Cemetery with a marker erected in their memory.
It is because of these 171 victims that new fire and safety laws were created.
Six days after the fire, a funeral procession for 25 unidentified dead drew 15,000 people. Each of the victims rode in a horse-drawn hearse accompanied by an honor guard of four white-gloved pallbearers. The bodies, which had been burned beyond recognition, were placed each in their own coffin. Each coffin was separated by a brick wall and were buried in a semicircle.
Located at: 317 W Philadelphia Ave Boyertown, PA 19512