The burning of Chelsea
The story is hidden there, behind the numbers.
The population of Chelsea, Massachusetts — a Boston suburb — rose steadily through nine straight censuses, from 642 residents in 1820 to 34,072 in 1900. And the rate of growth in some of those decades was astronomical:
|Census||Population||+ / – %|
And then came 1910 — when the numbers were very different.
The population in 1910: 32,452.
A decrease of 4.8%.1
Now that’s exactly the kind of fact that might help us understand why a family we know was in Chelsea in 1900 wasn’t there in 1910. The population dropped. They must have moved on.
That’s the real question here, isn’t it? We’re family historians, after all, and we want so much more than just the names and dates and places. We want the stories.
We want to know why.
Looking at those numbers should alert us to the need to dig deeper– to do that reasonably exhaustive research we all know we have to do — and find the answer to the key question: what happened between 1900 and 1910 that changed things so dramatically in Chelsea?
And if we go ahead and do that research, we find that the event that caused that population drop happened in Chelsea exactly 110 years ago today.
The front page headline the next day in the Los Angeles Herald tells the tale: “Fire Rages in Chelsea, Mass.; Millions Are Lost.”2
And, the story said, over an Associated Press dateline of April 12, “An apparently insignificant fire which started among rags on a dump in the city of Chelsea today was fanned by a northwest gale into a conflagration which obliterated nearly one-third of the city. Five hundred dwelling houses and public buildings were destroyed, 1500 families were driven from their homes and 10,000 people made homeless.” There were, at that point, four known dead and 50-100 reported injured.3
Those high winds meant the fire moved fast: “Residents had mere moments to flee fast-burning structures, bundling anything they could salvage in bedsheets and dodging flaming debris and embers carried by the strong winds …. Many escaped with just the clothes on their backs, like congregation members of the People’s Afro-Methodist Episcopal Church on Fourth Street, who were in the middle of a service, unaware that the church’s roof was on fire. Only 20 minutes after the pastor and the congregation evacuated, the building burned down.”4
And the final toll: “the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908, … took 19 lives and leveled nearly half the city.”5
The fire left 85 missing and at least 1500 buildings burned to the ground. The City Hall, Public Library, Post Office and hospital were among the buildings lost. Some 13 churches, eight schools and three banks burned.6 And it took years for Chelsea to rebuild.
That’s why the population fell between 1900 and 1910.
They were burned out.
Out of their homes, out of their jobs, out of their lives.
Not just “they moved away.”
Not just “they were in another city in 1910.”
Doing reasonably exhaustive research means going behind the numbers.
Because the story of Chelsea is hidden there, behind the census numbers.
And the numbers tell the story, if we just discipline ourselves to look.
Image: Central Congregational Church after the Great Chelsea Fire, Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Collections Online.
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Chelsea, Massachusetts,” rev. 8 Apr 2018; data abstracted from Census of Population and Housing, 1820-1910, U.S. Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/). ↩
- “Fire Rages in Chelsea, Mass.; Millions Are Lost,” Los Angeles Herald, 13 April 1908, p.1, col. 1-8; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 11 Apr 2018). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Katheleen Conti, “When Chelsea burned,” Boston Globe online edition, posted 10 April 2008 (http://archive.boston.com/news/ : accessed 11 Apr 2018). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- “Great Chelsea Fire, 1908,” Celebrate Boston (http://www.celebrateboston.com/ : accessed 11 Apr 2018). ↩
I read an account of this fire in a personal diary held in the NEHGS manuscript collection. It talked about the tragic fire and the subsequent trip
from Newton MA to Chelsea to assess the damage. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to be on the ground and to breath the charred air, and witness the devastation.
The photos on Digital Commonwealth are a stunning reminder of the power of fire.
Thank you for the reminder to look for the reason for a move. I can think of many reasons. The Year Without a Summer; The Gold Rush; land purchase opening up; loggers moving on when all the trees are cut in an area. Now if I just knew why a grandparent moved from Connecticut to Mattituck, New York. Sigh
May 15, 1894, my great grandfather and his family were affected by the Roxbury (Boston) fire. They lived either within the area that burned on Walpole St or extremely close (the streets have been reconfigured since then,so it is difficult for me to tell exactly where the fire boundaries relate to their address at the time. I happened on the many articles about the fire a couple of years ago,and then realized that it was probably why they show up at a different address in the following records. The articles also shed interesting light on the fire-fighting capabilities (or lack thereof)at that time.
The firefighters sure didn’t have everything available we do today… and we still lose people to fire. 🙁
Judy, where did you get the 1890 census information? Is that part of the census that survived the fire that destroyed most of that census?
Take a look at footnote 1: check out the link to the Census Bureau reports there including the reports for 1890. The Census Bureau did statistical reports from every census, including 1890. We don’t have the names for the bulk of 1890 because of the fire… but we do have the numbers because those reports were compiled before the fire.
This was a great reminder to dig deeper. I eagerly check my mail for the next article. Always “spot on” and very informative. Thank you for all your work.
Thanks for the kind words!
The Chinese Exclusion Act records at National Archives at Seattle has a file for Edward J. Ar Tick of Chelsea, MA. (box 240, file 31,323) He wrote letters to his relatives in Hong Kong describing the fire. The letters are in his file. The friend he was living with lost everything in the fire. This is an unexpected source for information on the Chelsea fire. We sent copies of the file and other related information to the Chinese Historical Society of New England and it is in their archives in Boston.
That’s so cool, Trish! What a great find — and how wonderful that you shared it with the Chinese Historical Society of New England archives.
Is there someplace that lists the names of the victims who died in the 1908 Chelsea fire? I haven’t been able to find this in my online searches. We have a vague family legend about this that I have been trying without success to check out.
I don’t know of one online, but I’d definitely check with the Chelsea library.
Of course, I should have though of that. Thanks!
Very insightful article. Thank you for sharing. It gives me some ideas with my own mysteries.
Good reminder. I’ve been mulling over what it must have been like for my family who lived in Chelsea at the time. My grandmother was a child, and she and the rest of her family survived. I’m betting she didn’t remember because she was so young. But her parents were displaced, as were her nearby grandparents and the extended family who lived on Walnut St. These moves we see in historical directories, vital records, and Census records all have stories, some discoverable, some not.