February 3, 1902: Small Fire Causes Unexplained Explosion, Deaths, and Broken Families


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

February 3, 1902: Boyertown is in shock tonight. “The 3rd of February will long be remembered by the people of Boyertown. On that night the most appalling accident that ever visited our town occurred, and four lives were sacrificed,” says Editor Charles Spatz in the Democrat. The ghastly tragedy began as a small fire in the basement of Carver’s Bakery at the corner of East Philadelphia Avenue and South Jefferson Street. Although the alarm was promptly sent in, by the time the firemen arrived, flames had spread to the second floor of the building and were eating their way to the roof.

A large crowd had gathered to watch the fire, pressing too closely to the building. There was an explosion of unknown cause in a second-floor bedroom, and without warning, a deafening roar was heard. Before the astonished crowd could react, the side wall of the room bulged out and collapsed, with cloud of dense black smoke and dust pouring out and bricks cascading to the street. 

Inexplicitly, the furniture in the bedroom was undamaged, a bureau standing against the wall moved an inch! The lifeless body of 14-year-old Lawrence Shaner was the first to be recovered, dug out from the ruins. The next one found was the body of Irvin Houck, age 15, and then fireman George Grim, who was alive and conscious. He was carried across the street to the home of Janius Stauffer, where he died an hour later. The last victim, fireman Henry Shaner, Lawrence’s father, was not found until his cap was seen on the ground and rescuers burrowed through the debris to locate his body. The victims were horribly mangled with broken bones and crushed heads, and a number of other spectators suffered scalp wounds, lacerations, bad bruises, broken bones and internal injuries from the flying bricks.

The newly constructed building was badly damaged. Shaner is survived by his widow Amanda and three sons, Edgar, Paul, and Charles. George Grim leaves a wife and five children. They were the first two firemen in Boyertown killed in the line of duty.

The last sentence of the newspaper article, "May such a visitation never again fall to our lot is the devout wish of every one,” was not to be fulfilled. The tragic irony is that Henry Shaner’s widow Amanda and two of their three remaining sons, Paul and Charles, were killed in the Rhoads Opera House fire six years later, leaving 15-year-old Edgar a homeless orphan.

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