July 9, 1896: Spontaneous Combustion Fire Damages Rhoads Opera House Building


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

July 9, 1896: The cry of fire at the Rhoads Opera House building startled the people of Boyertown early this morning. It was only the timely discovery and the brave work of our bold firefighters that saved the largest building in town from destruction and prevented one of the largest fires the town has ever had. One half hour later and the entire building would have been doomed. The heat was so intense, it was almost impossible to approach it.

The fire started on the fourth floor in one of the dwellinghouses on Washington Street, in the rear of the building, and was discovered at 6:45 AM. The alarm was immediately sounded as great volumes of smoke issued from under the roof and cornice. The Keystone and Hookies companies responded quickly and soon had several streams playing on the flames. It was a hard fire to fight, on the fourth floor under a slate roof.

The firemen fought bravely, and after a few hours of hard work succeeded in checking the progress of the flames. Two of them had narrow escapes from death. One fire fighter was on the fourth floor when a large portion of the ceiling and burning timbers fell striking him over his left eye and scorching him severely around the face. Another man was on the roof and fell through an opening that had been made to fight the flames. It was only by chance that he didn’t fall into the burning mass.

The origin of the fire was a box of refuse stored under the roof which started to burn spontaneously. Dr. Thomas J.B. Rhoads, the owner of the building, who had joined in the bucket brigade, had his hair and beard singed by the flames and inhaled some of the smoke. A tenant, Fred Geyer, who suffers from consumption, was carried down from his bedroom to the yard and then carried back after the fire. In another apartment, an elderly woman who had been sick for years refused to get out of bed, and remained there through the fire.

Damage was estimated from $1000 to $2000. The entire building will need a new roof and new plastering. A large number of people came to gape at the scene, many from out of town. Twelve years later, the entire building will be destroyed in the worst fire in Boyertown’s history.

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