Honoring the 105th anniversary of the Boyertown Opera house fire

Photos from the book Collinwood School Disaster by Marshall Everett

Yes, it is that time again, the time that we are reminded of the Boyertown Opera house fire of 1908. Augusta Bertha Thompson, age 32, died in this horrific fire in Boyertown. Mrs. Thompson and her son had attended the performance. Somehow Alfred escaped and walked home and told his father what had happened.

Augusta would leave behind a grieving husband (Amos), grieving parents (Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Klinger of Clayton, New Jersey), as well as two grieving sisters. The death of Augusta Thompson left a nineteen month old daughter Anna and an eight year old son Alfred motherless. We cannot imagine the grief the family felt with the loss of this young mother.

Four hundred three miles and fifty-two days later, another Thompson family would begin the mourning process. A mother has just lost her two sons, Nils and Tommy Thompson. Nils Thompson, age nine, was always a great help to his widowed mother. He had escaped the fire by jumping from a window. However, after being unsuccessful in his search for his little brother Tommy, Nils went back into the building to find him. Both boys died. Mrs. Thompson, a widow, lost her nine year old and seven year old sons.

The Thompson mother, Augusta Thompson of Boyertown, met her fate at Washington Street and East Philadelphia Avenue in Boyertown. She died with 169 other victims of the fire.

The Widow Thompson of Cleveland, Ohio, who lost two sons, was to my knowledge not related to Augusta Thompson, but I am sure she had heard of the Boyertown Opera House Fire. The story of Boyertown’s devastating fire had been reported in newspapers across the country, even across the world. What had Mrs. Thompson thought about this crisis? Perhaps being a widow herself she could feel the pain in the hearts of the people of Boyertown. Perhaps she gave her sons an extra hug on that January morning when she read the newspaper reporting the Boyertown fire. Perhaps she was feeling lucky that she had her sweet sons and they were safe.

I am sure Mrs. Thompson’s sons (Nils and Tommy) left for school as usual that cold morning, March 4, 1908. Just as all those folks in Boyertown had walked to the second floor of the Rhoad’s Building, the Thompson boys walked into their school. Nils and Tommy attended Collinwood Lake View School in North Collinwood Ohio (once called a pretty little suburb of Cleveland, OH).

How did these Thompson boys meet their death? Their school, Collinwood Lake View School, would burn, taking the lives of one hundred seventy two children and two female teachers. But what happened you ask?

“Two little girls coming from the basement saw smoke. Before the janitor sounded the alarm a mass of flames was sweeping up the stairway from the basement. Before the children on the upper floor could reach the ground floor egress was cut off and they perished.”

The building lacked fire escapes. There were two exits and one was barred. Just as in the Boyertown Opera house, people couldn’t escape and died in the buildings. When the fire company arrived at the schoolhouse they found their ladders could not reach the third floor.

The outcome of this fire, just as the fire in Boyertown, caused so many broken families and so many broken hearts. One hundred and seventy two children and two teachers died on March 4, 1908. Just as Boyertown had twenty five unidentified victims, Collinwood had nineteen children who could not be identified. Just as Boyertown victims were identified by a piece of clothing, or a ring or a pin, so were the children of Collinwood identified by clothing and other things. Sadness and grief covered that community in Ohio just as Boyertown was covered with sadness and grief two month earlier.

In October of 1908, a letter was sent to the mayor of Boyertown. It was written by a Mr. Rush, father of the John Rush who had lost his life in the school fire in Ohio. Mr. Rush was questioning what was done with the site where “that terrible disaster for which occurred in your village last winter when so many little children lost their lives. Did they construct a new building on the somber ground or did they reserve it to build a monument to the memory of the children? The reason I would like to know is because I lost my child in the school House Fire in Collinwood Ohio which was similar to the fire in your town. Now in Collinwood the authorities wish to rebuild the schoolhouse on the same site much to the dissatisfaction of the parents who lost their children, though we have money that was donated for the purpose of erecting a monument. We desire to erect it on the spot where the children died. Please write and tell me if you intend to rebuild or erect a monument over the ground where the fire took place.”

I am with sympathy

Your Friend,

SW Rush

As we all know, the opera house building was rebuilt. A memorial marker is on the side of the building and the Boyertown Historical Society had a State marker placed at Fairview Cemetery on the 100th anniversary of this fire.

What happened in Collinwood? In 1910 a new school was constructed directly next to the site of the Lake View School. The new school was called Collinwood Memorial School. Next door and on top of the site of the old school a memorial garden was created to remember the victims of this fire. A historical marker was dedicated in 2003 at this site.

And so, two communities over four hundred miles apart were mourning in the winter of 1908. Lives of so many of these families would change completely with the loss of the family unit. As we in our community of Boyertown reflect on the 105th anniversary of our devastating fire, let us remember another community who is also reflecting on the loss.

Rest in Peace Boyertown Opera House Victims and Collinwood Lake View School Victims.