Opera House (Lyceum Hall) fire, Post Master Milton J. Porter, Welsh & Parks Hardware Store, more fires, The George Clay Fire Company

In the early morning hours of December 30, 1914, Wayne experienced its worst fire since the one that in March, 1900, burned the Bellevue Hotel to the ground. This time the conflagration was in another of Wayne’s early landmarks, the Opera House, built in the early 1870’s on ground donated by Henry Askin, one of the founders of this suburban community.

The building known as Lyceum Hall, when it was first erected, was originally used for lectures, debates and amateur theatricals. In 1889 the Wayne Estate enlarged the small stage, adding a new proscenium and scene shifts. At about this same time the third floor was renovated to serve as quarters for Wayne Lodge No. 581, F. and A. Masons, which was instituted there in 1890.

Then again in 1903 the building itself was remodeled and enlarged, provision being made at that time for the housing of the Wayne Post Office. Thereafter, it became the center of community activities for Wayne with the Euterpean concerts and other events of sociaJ and musical interest being given there. And not long before the time of the fire, the Messrs. Allen began to show their moving pictures at the Opera House, that being the flrst motion picture theater in Wayne.

The fire of December, 1914, started in the second story of the Gas Company’s office next door to the Opera House at about 1:30 in the morning. A call to the Radnor Police Department brought a quick response by the two engines of the Radnor Fire Company. Otis Hunsicker recalls that the first fire engine to be built by the Hale Company was in the shop, complete except for paint. So dire was the need for it that it was called into use just as it was, soon after the onset of the fire. In addition, a hurry call was sent to Berwyn, Devon, Bryn Mawr and Merion No. 1, aIthough the latter did not actually get into service.

At one time eight streams of water were playing on the fire, which soon worked its way up under the eaves of the Opera House, where it could not effectively be reached by the firemen because of the height of the building. Indeed, a number of firemen had a narrow escape from death on the top floor of the building when the “back draft” so much dreaded by all fire fighters, exploded. Dense clouds of smoke nearly asphyxiated these men before they could reach the steps.

Milton J. Porter, who was postmaster at that time, with the help of his employees and of volunteers, saved not only all the moveable furniture in the post office section of the Opera House, but also all mail, stamps and records. Miss H. Ada Detterline, of the post office force, had a miraculous escape from death when she was struck by a falling cornice and severely injured as she was assisting in the removal of these records. Temporary quarters were immediately set up in the Wayne Title and Trust building, and by 11:00 o’clock the following morning the outgoing mail was gotten off.

Practically the entire stock of the Welsh and Park Hardware Store was ruined by water. Less than two hours after the onset of the fire, Mr. Welsh had leased a vacant store in Union Hall and by noon had given an order to the Supplee-Biddle Company in Philadelphia for new stock, the first load of which was brought out by Herbert George in his truck that evening.

The Allens moved their motion pictures to St. Katharine’s Hall, where they were shown for some time thereafter. Their screen and piano were burned up in the fire, although the motion picture machine was saved. Andrew J. Martin, of the Wayne Plumbing and Heating Company, estimated their loss at about $3,000, with a large quantity of tools destroyed and the main office and cellar flooded by water. In the Gas Company’s office all the papers and records of John L. Mather were destroyed. These records covered his entire term of service with the Electric Light Company and the Wayne Steam Heat Company, as well as with the U. G. I. However, books of the company were in the fireproof safe.

Wendell and Treat estimated their loss at about $30,000, while the Wayne Lodge suffered a loss of some $2,000 in the way of furniture and fixtures. That the office of the Wayne Estate was saved was due to the good work of Charles R. Kennedy and of Otis Hunsicker.

According to the account of this spectacular fire as given in “The Suburban” of January 1, 1915, “nearly everyone in Wayne and St. Davids was there. . . all fire companies did fine service with especial credit due to the Hale Motor Company engine in charge of Charles J. Young.” The slate roof of the Presbyterian Church next door to the Opera House was probably the only thing that saved it from destruction since a continuous shower of sparks swept that way. Indeed, that anything in the general vicinity was saved seems miraculous in view of the limited fire fighting facilities of Wayne and its neighboring communities in 1914 as compared to those of the present.

Among the smaller, but yet important fires of the period when Wayne had but the two fire engines, was that on the G. L. Warner place, a short distance from Martin’s Dam, when in March, 1913, the barn was completely destroyed although all the horses and cattle were saved. When the alarm was sounded Chief Wilkins with Guy Hallowell., E. J. Wendell and Otis Hunsicker made a quick run in Mr. Wendell’s automobile.

When they found the barn a complete mass of fiames on their arrival they immediately set to work to save the rest of the buildings. The first step in this direction was to build a dam across a small creek that ran near the barn, using fence ralls, stones and sod in its construction. When the rest of the firemen got there they found plenty of water for their pump. in this dam. For three hours Chief Wilkins with 15 of his men worked successfully to save the surrounding buildings.

The first big residential fire after the acquisition of the two automobile engines was that of the Edward A. Schmidt residence at Radnor in September, 1909. The nearest water was from a lily pond about 900 feet from the house. When the pumps had exhausted that supply their chemical apparatus was brought into play, putting the fire under control after two or three hours’ time.

On the way to the Isaac H. Clothier, Jr. estate in the bitter cold weather of November, 1917, both of the Radnor engines broke down. However, they eventually joined the Bryn Mawr Fire Company, the Merion Fire Company, and the George W. Clay Company from Conshohocken at the scene of the destruction of the old fashioned stable where the flames spread so quickly that a number of prize winning hunters and a pony belonging to the Clothier children perished in the flames.

A few months later, in May, 1918, I the Radnor Fire Company was called to the J. J Kearsley Mitchell place on Spring Mill road, where the garage, which also housed the chauffeur’s family, was already a mass of flames when they arrived. Despite their most valiant efforts the 16-months-old baby of the chauffeur was burned to death in sight of several of the Wayne firemen, who got ladders up to the I room in which the crib stood, only to be beaten back by the violence of the flames. Together the George Clay Fire Company and the Radnor Fire Company pieced out 2000 feet of hose to stretch to a pond from which they pumped water in relays in order to save several greenhouses and other buildings, since there was no other water on the hilltop on which these buildings were located.

(To Be Continued)