This year marks this 110th anniversary of the Rhoads Opera House tragedy. A memorial plaque remains at the site and there is a grave site dedicated to the 25 unidentified victims at Fairview Cemetery.
On Jan. 13, 1908, a fire broke out at the Rhoads Opera House, taking 170 lives. The town was left in shambles, forced to deal with the aftermath of a scorched building and an overwhelming amount of lost loved ones.
The Borough of Boyertown was only 42 years old at the time, officially, and was faced with the gravest of circumstances.
In the January 19, 1908, issue of the Berks County Democrat (now The Boyertown Area Times), Charles B. Spatz wrote:
“Boyertown is in the deepest gloom. You see none of the town people on the streets except those who are of necessity required there to look after relief work. All the others are closeted in their homes to brood over the great calamity in their solitude.
“The streets are crowded with morbid strangers who come here to extend their sympathy but find none of the town spoke to sympathize with.
“Practically all business is suspended. We are all in a maze and it will be some days before the end Normandy of the calamity draws upon us.
“Our people under the distressing circumstances are bearing up bravely for we have the sympathy of the whole world where human life is sacred.”
The Rhoads Opera House stood as a three-story brick building – as it is currently – located at the corner of East Philadelphia Avenue and Washington Street.
It’s been reported 400 people of all ages were on the second floor of the building to see the play, “The Scottish Reformation.” Many members of St. John’s Lutheran Church were in attendance.
How it happened
On the third floor of the building, a hose connecting the gas tank to the lantern machine became disconnected; the gas began to hiss as it filled the room. Down below, the hissing sound caused a disturbance among the crowd. During the excitement – coal oil lamps, serving as footlights, were knocked over. A small blaze began by the curtain, followed by an explosion in another part of the building which caused smoke and flames to bellow. The fire spread to five nearby homes.
Once the fire took off, there was a panic to exit.
“Many of the audience rushed to the rear of the hall, to the doors they had entered. Some climbed over the chairs to get there. Loose chairs were flowing in every direction, blocking logical means of escape. The doors opened inward and one door was bolted,” wrote Mary Jane Schneider, accounting the incident in her book “A Town in Tragedy.”
The town’s two fire companies – Keystone and Friend Hook and Ladder – worked together to fight the blaze and were later joined by the Good Will Fire Company. The firefighters stayed on the scene all night. Doctors from Reading and Pottstown also made their way to Boyertown that night to offer help.
In the aftermath
David R. Kohler, Boyertown’s burgess at the time, now had to make countless decisions and lead his fellow townsmen.
On Tuesday – the day after the fire — the search for the dead began. Kohler called for all saloons to close. The Pennsylvania Red Cross reached out to Kohler, as did the mayor of Philadelphia, to offer assistance. He replied there was no need for Red Cross, or other emergency crews; the community was in need of coffins.
That evening, the burgess called for the organization of a Citizens Relief Committee and by Wednesday there was some structure developed from the chaos. The committee helped to identify loved ones and made plans to bury the unidentifiable.
More than 50 undertakers were put to work to help make the bodies identifiable. The town was inundated with strangers offering sympathies and with out-of-town reporters.
“By Thursday, Boyertown had three centers of activity: the morgues, the opera house ruins where workers sifted through the rubble, and Fairview Cemetery,” wrote Schneider.
As the town’s funeral homes filled as morgues, officials were forced to utilize the town’s only schoolhouse on Washington Street to serve as the fourth. Each morgue was guarded by police.
Funerals were held Thursday to Monday; school did not resume for three weeks. Among the victims were three Boyertown teachers and 26 students.
Spatz, editor and publisher of The Berks County Democrat, was one of the actors in the Jan. 13 performance. While he escaped with his life, he suffered four fractured ribs, burns and internal injuries. While his father recovered, 16-year-old Carl Spatz was determined to put out the Democrat on time.
Two years later — the young Spatz would join West Point to begin his military career in aviation. He would become General Carl Spaatz, the Chief of the Air Force Combat Command in World War II and would be named the first Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. *Note: In 2007, The Boyertown Area Times reported that Carl’s wife Ruth and his three daughters, Katharine, Rebecca and Carla, convinced him to add an “a” to his last name in 1937 to encourage the proper pronunciation (spots).
Inspired fire safety laws
Two days after the fire, the mayor of Philadelphia called for safety inspections of theaters. City officials from across the state and beyond followed suit.
In 1909, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed fire safety laws. This took place in the form of two bills, one of which addressed theaters and the buildings themselves, while the other addressed the machinery aspect.
Among the safety features was the requirement for doors to open outward for a building hosting 50 or more people. And the doors must be unlocked. Also, second floors must have more than one exit, fire escapes must be easily accessible and marked, combustible or explosion oil cannot be used for lighting, and auditoriums must have one center aisle as well as two side aisles.
In response to the confusion and panic during the fire, Boyertown appointed its first fire police in 1910.
The late Mary Jane Schneider Lentz, editor of The Boyertown Area Times from 1966 to 1989, collected information about the fire and noted the anniversary each year by publishing articles. In 1991, she published “Midwinter Mourning,” The Boyertown Opera House Fire, Volume I. The book focuses on the 170 victims. The following year, “A Town in Tragedy,” Volume II was published and featured detailed information about the fire itself and how the town coped.
Descendants of the Rhoads Opera House fire victims gather each year with members of the Boyertown Area Historical Society at Fairview Cemetery to remember and commemorate the event.
The Boyertown Area Times continues to recognize the anniversary of the Rhoads Opera House fire each year. Sources: Boyertown Times – Centennial Edition, 1966. Boyertown Times 150th anniversary edition, 2007. “A Town in Tragedy,” and “Midwinter Mourning,” by Mary Jane Schneider, 1991 and 1992.
This article was originally published Thursday, May 19, 2016.