Site of the Rhoads Opera House Fire – Boyertown, Pennsylvania - Atlas Obscura

Site of the Rhoads Opera House Fire

Boyertown, Pennsylvania

The site of a tragedy in 1908 that claimed the lives of 171 people and changed fire safety laws across the state. 


The tragedy of the Rhoads Opera House fire unfolded on January 13, 1908. After a kerosene stage light was knocked over, the flame spread to a malfunctioning stereopticon projector being used by an insufficiently-trained employee during a lecture on the second floor.

The audience waited in their seats for employees to put the fire out, but as minutes passed and panic rose, the mass of people pressed toward the door, preventing it from opening inward. The exit stairwells narrowed at the bottom and the frenzy of people trying to flee wedged together too tightly to escape, and windows were too high from the ground to climb through. The fire resulted in tragic losses: 171 people died; 29 were burned beyond recognition. 

The tight-knit community was in mournful chaos, and a massive memorial was dug in the cold of a Pennsylvania January winter for the unrecognizable dead. In the interim, charred bodies remained in local buildings, including the high school and local saloons. Today, the building is now apartments with commercial spaces on the ground floor.

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