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The day the sky turned black

View of the Great Chelsea Fire of 1973 from Burlington's Civil Defense HQ in Overlook Park on Winnmere Hill. Photo by Steve Duke

Burlington Retro's Robert Fahey recounts the reaction and response in Greater Boston (or more specifically, Burlington) to the Great Chelsea Fire of 1973, which happened fifty years ago today.

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My father was a Chelsea fire fighter, tiller man on Ladder 3. We lived in Malden. He didn't come home for three days. When he did, he took a shower, ate something, hugged use and went back to the city he loved.

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Anonymous
11 Oct 2023 at 8:45 pm

My daughter in law’s father who just passed away was the dispatcher for three days on the Chelsea fire. The Chelsea fire dept just did a great tribute to him by the ringing of the bell and telling all the firefighters on three shifts how he was the calm voice during a hectic period. Before he died my son gave him a copy of the dispatch calls. His name was George Brown if you want to look him up.

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Lots of photos from the 1973 fire - and the 1908 fire.

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I've seen the 1973 photos, tbh there isn't many of them and all of them belong to Spencer Grant. That lone amature photographer who just happened to have his camera in his car that day and was able to get onto the Tobin Bridge to take photos.

The Chelsea Public Library flickr page has high res prints of the same photos that Digital Commonwealth has but they aren't negative scans.

But the 1908 ones I haven't seen too many of. tbh its pretty hard to tell what is what since so much of the city burned. Very few buildings survived. I can recognize some (such as the Methodist Church and some of Chelsea Square) but not all.

Thanks.

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My grandfather's, who was born in 1911, parents had a huge chunk of pennies that had melted together during the 1908 fire. My grandfather grew up in Chelsea.

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Here's an article, with a few more photos, posted on the Firehouse magazine website:

https://www.firehouse.com/historical-incidents/article/53074555/capturin...

And here's a 32-minute documentary video, produced in 1974 by the National Fire Protection Association:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6zzterNQx4

NFPA is a professional organization, coincidentally based in Quincy, which does research, makes recommendations, and issues standards for fire departments and insurance companies.

Read the comments on the video, too.

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I moved here 2 years after that, so hadn't heard of it. Amazing that there were no deaths!

From the article:

Some stats:

300 buildings across 20 city blocks skeletonized in two hours
1100 homeless
800 jobless
Zero deaths or serious injuries (a miracle by all accounts)
Three days to completely stop the fire

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Full Disclosure: I didn't live here nor was I alive in 1973 but I live in Chelsea so I've done some rabbit hole research online cuz it is in a way fascinating.

The Tobin Bridge on one side, and the Commuter Rail tracks on the other that pretty much stopped it from spreading much further into the city and Everett.

The only remaining part of that area that was there before the fire is the Everett/Arlington/Sixth block (with Ash St in the middle). And that was only because they were trying their best to save the Williams School and the Walnut Street Synagogue.

Even the fire station at 4th @ Everett (now Chelsea Station restaurant) burned. (the shell was re-used).

Its amazing to think that part of chelsea was just as dense as the other side of the Tobin Bridge, mixed commercial/residential and some industrial. Now its all office parks and industrial.. and of course, Market Basket.

Thats why the mall is there.. well the previous indoor mall, the Mystic Mall was built. I am sure demoulas (who owned just the store plot) and KMC realty (aka Kmart) got a deal on the property and incentive to develop there in the early 80s. (much of the development didn't happen until the early to mid 1980s, almost 10 years after the fire).

Here's what the mall looked like in 1984 when it opened.

IMAGE(https://live.staticflickr.com/65535/53258353030_963f860846.jpg)

You can see much of the development around is still empty in 1984.

And here in this July 1977 WGBH video of the start of the construction of the mall that it was just barren land.

The '73 fire really changed the city forever.

Edit: looks like mary musk now prevents embedding.. sigh. Here's a Google Drive Link if the above doesnt work.

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I went to Market Basket on Wednesday morning and noticed where Chelsea's urban fabric ends and morphs a postindustrial hellscape of office park and strip malls and put a mental pin in it. I had never really noticed it in the countless times I'd been in that area before. Later that day, by pure coincidence Rob Fahey (the editor of Burlington Retro) contacted me and asked me if I thought it was UHub material and asked me to post it if it was.

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My father grew up in Everett and Chelsea, The day before the 1973 fire he drove me around the city showing me the places where he grew up. Next day the entire area we toured was gone.

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That's very sad that he lost his old neighborhood but I'm happy he was able to show you everything before it was gone.

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I just got back from a great event about the 50th anniversary of the Chelsea Fire at the old fire house (now a restaurant and office space) that was in the middle of everything. People should check out the Chelsea Scanner page on Twitter for more info about that and Paul Koolihan is also on Twitter and I know he was taking photos of the event as well.

Chelsea Cable was there and was doing videos with people who were there. I'm sure it will be on their YouTube page soon!

I'm 4th or 5th generation Chelsea (haven't figured out which yet) but we were the other side of town Mill Hill. Bring born in the 80s I only experienced the aftermath. The entire side of town it happened in was barren for years. The city still has a huge fire phobia. Things change suddenly from street to street depending on what burned. It also pushed a lot of people to leave the city, combined with the bridge having recently been built and a general urban exodus it really was one of the factors that pushed the city up and over the edge in the 80s and 90s.

My mother told me she remembered going onto Broadway and people telling her to stay away from the street. E en though the fire was on the other side of the city the cobblestones were exploding on the North side of the city as the heat transfered down the street.

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We were on the Pike going from Newton to Boston and we could see that it was huge but had no idea what was burning. No internet or cell phones and too early to be on the radio. I remember it well.

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That reminds me of 911 for me, I didn't know it happened until I got home from a morning college class. I had been taking the buses home and people were acting weird but it was the bus so I didn't think much of it (weird in many ways but also overtly nice in others and they weren't accepting fares.) I had a cell phone but the old Nokia's didn't have internet and nobody was really texting cause it was $$$ i didn't find out until close to noon. It's weird thinking back to times when information wasn't instant. I often wonder what it must have been like before TV or phones when something huge could happen and it would take a long time to cycle the world, or not.

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As a 15 year old High School student from Boston I had no idea this event even happened. Pre-Internet days were really, really different than they are now that we have the internet in our pockets.

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