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History's Headlines: Fire in the Lumber Yard

History's Headlines: Fire in the...

On the evening of March 31, 1973, Victor Leibenguth of 1548 Liberty Street in Allentown went to bed and soon was in deep sleep. He was, that is, until he was suddenly awakened by what he later called a “crackling noise.” He thought right away it was burning wood. Noticing the house was feeling unusually warm, he got out of bed and looked out the window to see the former Trexler lumber yard across the street in a sheet of flames.

“I thought the world was coming to an end,” said Leibenguth.

The location was one familiar to everyone in Allentown. Years before it had been established as the site of General Harry C. Trexler’s lumber company. The family business had roots back to the middle of the 19th century when Trexler’s father and brothers founded a lumber business on the 900 block of Hamilton Street. Harry Trexler had expanded on it greatly. The Trexler Lumber Company had relocated there in 1904. By the time of Trexler’s death in 1933 the lumber business had timber interests up and down the east coast.  It was also on the tracks that defined the company’s aging rail yard that the traveling version of Ringling Brothers circus would unload before setting up on the Allentown Fairgrounds.

But the business did not thrive once the driving genius that guided it was no more. And by the early 1970s the end was reached.  In July, 1972 the Trexler Lumber Company was liquidated and acquired by the First National Bank of Allentown. Also on the site was the hardware business of C.Y. Schelly & Brother Inc. According to the newspaper accounts, a great deal of paint was stored there.

How the fire started has been much speculated upon. The accepted story is that two teenage boys had a stash of X-rated magazines in the old property and went there late at night to look at them.  Unsure of the exact location, they lit matches. They later came forward and told police that their matches ignited paint fumes. The flames spread to the wood piles and they quickly fled.

It was the nurses of the Allentown Hospital who saw the blaze, reporting it at 12:52 a.m.

“The whole thing went up at once,” said Allentown Fire Chief William Thompson. “It didn’t start at one end and work to the other. I have never seen anything like it in all my years as a fireman.”

According to one source the first message that came through from firefighters on the scene was something like, “We have one hell of a worker here,” worker being slang for an extreme fire.

“By the time the firemen arrived at the scene it had been determined that the two sprawling buildings were beyond saving,” the next day’s newspapers were to note.

The next step was to establish what the newspapers called a “water curtain” to protect surrounding buildings such as Hess’s 17th Street Annex, the Liberty Nursing Center, a nearby Acme Market and the rows of homes on North 16th Street.

The first fireman reported flames of between 70 and 100 feet high. Various reports of intensity of the heat was recorded. Nearby utility poles were set alight. Walls of some homes were set on fire. The thermometer on one home registered 120 degrees.

There were grave concerns about the Liberty Medical Center. Venetian blinds on the interior of the building melted in the heat. A similar effect warped the windows and the window panes that had to be replaced. The superintendent of the overall Liberty Square building noted there had been extensive smoke and water damage.

The real hardships came to the firefighters at the blaze. The heat was so intense that it was extremely difficult for them to get near to the heart of the blaze.

“I manned a hand line for the first time in five years. It was so hot you had to keep soaking your hands in water and wiping your face,” said fire Chief Thompson.

To keep the fire from spreading it was necessary to wet down the roof of the Acme. And as with any big fire it drew a crowd. There were over a hundred spectators jammed along the fence line, despite the early morning hour that the blaze took place.

‘“Oohs” and “aahs” came from the crowd when sections of the building, weakened by flames, collapsed inward and outward, sending showers of sparks flying into the night sky,” recorded the press. “The flood of water flowing to the sewers on Liberty Street was warm to the touch. Clouds of steam rose from the pavement of Liberty and N. 16th Street as the water from the burning buildings burst into flames.”  

Many were residents of the area. They commented for the newspaper on the speed of the fire. “It was like somebody threw a match on to a pack of matches,” said John Saraceno of 1548 Liberty Street. He also noted that fire’s heat creaked several windows in his house, which was directly across from the flaming buildings.

Perhaps the best thing about the Trexler Lumber Company fire was that there were no deaths as a result. What it did do was leave the fire department tied up for most of the rest of Saturday. Fire lines were hosing down the hot spots.

And then began the process of clearing the mess. “Robert H.S. Laudenslager, director of the Bureau of Buildings and Inspections,” noted the Morning Call, “was at the fire scene much of the day. A bulldozer assisted in toppling one the of the few remaining portions of the Trexler Lumber Company building which remained upright after the fire.”

Almost from the first attempts were made in both the press and public to tie the Trexler Lumber Company fire to other recent conflagrations. “Yesterday morning’s blaze was the third major fire to hit the city this year and second in the past week,” reported the Morning Call.

Soon the newspapers were full of stories about the possibility of an arsonist on the loose. One report by two young people claimed to have seen a man climb over a fence and into a maroon Cadillac and drive away as the fire started. Police chief Carson Gable reported that the man had been questioned and was not in any way attached to the blaze.

Once the property was cleared attention was drawn to the site in another way. On September 25, 1973, the Charles Kline Lodge of Allentown’s B’ani Brith purchased the site for $70,000. Today the B’ani B’rith apartments rise from the site.

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