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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 + / – %
1820 642 8.1%
1830 771 20.1%
1840 2,390 210.0%
1850 6,701 180.4%
1860 13,395 99.9%
1870 18,547 38.5%
1880 21,782 17.4%
1890 27,909 28.1%
1900 34,072 22.1%

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.

But why?

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.

Chelsea 1908 fireThe 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.

  1. Wikipedia (, “Chelsea, Massachusetts,” rev. 8 Apr 2018; data abstracted from Census of Population and Housing, 1820-1910, U.S. Census Bureau (
  2. “Fire Rages in Chelsea, Mass.; Millions Are Lost,” Los Angeles Herald, 13 April 1908, p.1, col. 1-8; digital images, ( : accessed 11 Apr 2018).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Katheleen Conti, “When Chelsea burned,” Boston Globe online edition, posted 10 April 2008 ( : accessed 11 Apr 2018).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Great Chelsea Fire, 1908,Celebrate Boston ( : accessed 11 Apr 2018).
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