ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

The Rhoads Opera House Fire

Updated on April 23, 2013
Rhoads Opera House
Rhoads Opera House | Source

Small Town America

In 1908 Boyertown, PA was just another, somewhat typical, small town in America. Located just north of Pottstown, Boyertown is about fifty miles northwest of Philadelphia in BerksCounty. Like many communities its size, Boyertown proper was the center of a larger, more rural area and housed the businesses, churches and other social centers to meet the needs of the local populace. Ironically, the largest employer in town was the Boyertown Casket Company.

January 13, 1908

Members of St. John’s Lutheran Church were putting on their performance of The Scottish Reformation that evening at the Rhoads Opera House and the community was filled with much anticipation. The play was the highlight of the winter social calendar and 312 friends and family of the performers filled the seats. Everyone was squeezed into the second-floor hall of the building which was a three-story structure in the middle of Boyertown. The hall did not have electricity so the stage lighting was fed by five gallon drums of kerosene at the foot of the stage.

As some fifty members of the church began setting up for the third act – the execution of Queen Mary – the audience sat and waited. Accounts vary at this point but there was some type of disturbance in the audience. Some attribute the disturbance to a scream from a member of the audience when the turning of a wrong valve created an audible, prolonged hissing sound. Cast members lifted the curtain to see what had happened and in the process one of the kerosene lanterns was knocked over. This ignited a small fire on stage which was almost under control when, in an attempt to move the barrels of kerosene away from the stage, one of the barrels ruptured and kerosene poured into the fire. With the stage being all wood the small fire quickly turned into a conflagration.

In the ensuing panic people rushed to the exits but were unable to escape as the mass of bodies crushed against the inward opening doors creating a bottle neck. The greatest number of bodies was found at the main doors piled five and six deep. There were fire escapes attached to the exterior of the building but were unmarked and access to them was through windows three feet above floor level. It quickly became a struggle which only the strong had any hope of surviving. Within an hour 170 people were dead and another seventy-five seriously injured.

The Boyertown Fire Company arrived five minutes after the alarm was first reported. They found other townspeople trying to pull trapped theater-goers through the doors and to safety. They immediately began hosing down the building but the fire could not be stopped. It wasn't long until the roof fell in and the flames were not brought under control for several hours. Miraculously, more than one half of the people inside at the time of the fire made it out.

The coroner noted that many of the bodies were incinerated from the waist up leaving the lower part of their bodies intact. This was further evidence the fire had swirled over the victims as they were crushed together. Twenty-five bodies could not be identified and are interred in individual graves with a common headstone. Children were orphaned and whole families were wiped out; virtually everyone in Boyertown lost either a relative or someone they were close to.

Source

The Aftermath

The Rhoads Opera House fire was one of several in the early 1900s that helped spotlight the inadequacy of fire safety laws. The news of the fire spread nationwide and had a sobering impact. The flaws in the construction of the building that led to the disaster caused Governor Edwin Stuart to sign Pennsylvania’s first comprehensive fire safety law on May 3, 1909. The Pennsylvania legislation created standards for doors, landings, exits and other features of public buildings. Combustible stage curtains and kerosene lighting were banned from all theaters This legislation served as a model for other states.

The Rhoads Opera House fire was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States and, though it is of little solace to the victims and the people of Boyertown, was a major catalyst in fire prevention safety and the preserving of future lives.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 

      5 years ago from England

      It must have been an awful experience but as you say a major awakening occurred with fire safety as a resut of this and other fires.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)