THIS WEEK IN HISTORY FROM THE CURIOSITY DESK
11:05 am
Fri April 11, 2014

Chelsea On Fire: 1908

It was a warm — and very windy — morning in Chelsea on April 12, 1908, Palm Sunday, when an unthinkable disaster began to unfold.

It wasn’t that unusual for smoke to be rising from the Boston Blacking Company, a factory where they manufactured shoes and shoe adhesives. So "they soon found out what it was because the wind was bringing the burning embers to them," said George Ostler, a historian and retired Chelsea firefighter who has lectured extensively on the 1908 fire. By the time firefighters got to the scene, the many nearby scrap shops and buildings that stored waste rags had ignited.

There were no fire hydrants. No gas masks. No fire trucks.

"These were all horse-drawn steamers," Ostler said. "They called them steamers at the time."

"It was the fire engine of the day," said Steve Denning, the current Deputy Chief of the Chelsea Fire Department. He says that in 1908 they fought fire with fire — literally.

"It was a steamer that was run by coal," Denning said. "And they would have to fire up the steambox to get enough pressure in the engine to pump water."

Getting the steamers to the scene and getting them going took time. Denning says when it comes to fighting fire, time is the one thing you don’t have.

"Speed is everything," he said. "The norm is like a fire doubles in intensity every two minutes, so a fire that you have in its incipient stage is bad, two minutes later it's twice as bad and again it keeps going."

Fueled by the high winds, the fire spread — fast. The effort to control the blaze was herculean. Dozens of cities and towns sent equipment and men to battle the roaring fire back.

"Boston had thirteen pieces," Ostler said. "Medford had one piece. Malden had … Lynn … Cambridge … Wakefield … Somerville … Quincy … Winthrop … "

It would burn uncontrollably for five full hours, and another five after it was finally contained. A third of the city was reduced to ash.

"Thirteen churches, eight schools, 23 oil tanks, the U.S. post office, four newspaper plants, three bank buildings, a hospital, the city hall, two fire stations and over 700 business firms," Ostler said.

Some 17,000 residents were left homeless, and 19 people were killed.

By 1911, nearly the entire area was completely rebuilt, including the rag shops and scrap shops that so quickly and easily caught fire on the fateful day. Ostler says that they should have learned their lesson.

"Sixty-five years later, we had another fire that swept through and it was all from the same cause, rag shops and junk shops," he said.

The massive fire in 1973 — also aided by heavy winds — destroyed 18 city blocks. Mercifully, no one was killed. Denning recalls the scene, just a month before his first day with the Chelsea Fire Department.

"People were panicking," he said. "There was so much heavy, black smoke it was turning day into night. It just looked like night. It was a scary situation for a time there they didn’t think they were going to be able to stop it. But they finally did."

Today, the rag shops in Chelsea are gone, and technology has dramatically changed the way fires are detected and fought. But not everything is so different.

The windy conditions that stoked the fires in 1908 and 1973 still persist in Chelsea today. Denning says that wind still poses a major challenge for modern firefighters.

"We really can’t control the wind, so what you have to do is cut off the fire," he said. "You might have to go a building beyond and set up a defensive perimeter try to do the best you can and stop it. And sometimes it will go right over top of you."

And for as much as Chelsea has changed, in some areas, it’s exactly the same as it was back in 1908.

"We’re so densely packed," Denning said. "We have a lot of three-deckers, still, in some neighborhoods. We still have a lot here, there’s still a lot of potential with a lot of older wooden buildings, particularly the three-deckers."

The Great Chelsea Fire of 1908: The blaze that nearly destroyed one of Massachusetts’ oldest, most diverse and most densely populated cities - 106 years ago this week.

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