January 16, 1908: Relief Efforts Organized to Assist Victims of the Opera House Fire


By Margaret Leidy Harner from her book One Day at a Time: A Social History of Boyertown, PA.

January 16, 1908: With thousands of dollars pouring into town, Burgess Dr Daniel Kohler appointed a Citizens’ Relief Committee of 12 townsmen, chaired by businessman Irvin Ehst, to coordinate the relief efforts, to organize giving aid to the victims and families, to compile an accurate list of those missing and presumed dead in the fire, to arrange for the burial of the unidentified, and to keep a record of all donations which totaled $22,075.84. The money was used to feed the families left destitute by the fires, funeral expenses, medicines, nursing care, and a plot at Fairview Cemetery for the burial of the unidentified victims. The committee also had to find homes and establish trust funds for the 50 underage children who had lost one or both parents in the fires. Those minors received a regular income until the age of 21.

Joseph Borneman, a native of Boyertown and a prominent lawyer in Philadelphia, was instrumental in sending a member of the Philadelphia Relief Committee, Rudolph Blankenburg, to Boyertown to personally see how dire the situation was. Blankenburg had the highest praise for the work of the Relief Committee, promising to add $2000 to the original $500 Philadelphia had already pledged, and more if it was needed for “ample sustenance.” He was quoted in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, “It is remarkable to see the systematic way in which you have conducted everything, especially as this is your first experience of this kind.” Burgess Kohler, in turn, thanked Blankenburg in a voice faltering with emotion, for everything he had done. “I can’t begin to tell you how grateful we feel,” he said.

Most of the life insurance companies in the United States sent representatives to Boyertown with cash in their pockets, and they promptly paid off claims. Chairman Ehst had put his business and personal life one hold for a year to help his community recover from the loss.

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