A half century after the smoke finally cleared, the 1973 fire in Chelsea, Massachusetts, is still vividly remembered by those who lived through it. The devastating Chelsea blaze began on October 14, 1973, and destroyed 18 blocks – roughly 20% of the city.
The conflagration started in the “Rag Shop District,” which had received this nickname due to the large amount of salvage dealers and machine shops. This area was just 200 yards away from where the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 began – and not far from the Chelsea Clock factory. Despite this, our buildings were fortunately spared.
Others were not so lucky. More than 300 buildings burned down in the fire, leaving more than 1,100 people without homes and 600 people without jobs. While the efforts of firefighters from the Chelsea Fire Department and surrounding towns were able to contain the fire within 24 hours, it continued to burn and smolder for several days.
The Great Chelsea Fire, 1973
It was never determined exactly what caused the fire or what the precise monetary damage was. However, several factors combined to help the flames spread rapidly, including the high percentage of old wood buildings, stockpiled scrap tires due to low prices, a lack of water from the outdated city water mains and high winds drawn in from the coast by the fire’s updraft. The Rag Shop District had been slated for urban renewal in 1971, but little or no progress had been made before the fire.
By some miracle, there were no reported deaths due to the fire. And with a combination of federal aid plus assistance from surviving businesses such as Chelsea Clock, the city of Chelsea was able to rebuild stronger than ever.
In this exclusive account, our resident historian, longtime Chelsea employee John McCarthy, remembers the Great Chelsea Fire of 1973.
Looking Back on the Great Chelsea Fire
Sunday, October 14, 1973, was a beautiful fall day – perfect for working outside. At 4 p.m., I was some 25 feet up in the air on a 32-foot extension ladder, painting the underside trim of my home in Winthrop. Suddenly I was engulfed in near darkness. I first thought, a thunderstorm?
It didn’t take long to realize that the darkness was actually smoke. Newscasters were reporting a large, out-of-control fire in Chelsea. I called our factory ADT coordinator, who told me they had serviced others in the area but our building was not affected – except that our sprinkler system was alerting them of low water pressure.
I called our maintenance mechanic, Charlie “Big Al” Morrison, who lived within walking distance of the factory in nearby Prattville. Al’s wife, June, told me that Al had already left for the factory and that the city was barring all but emergency traffic from the area. At 6 p.m., I drove to the Chelsea/Everett line, parked on Carter Hill, and walked the short distance to Everett Avenue where our factory was. The fire was still raging, but thankfully the wind wasn’t blowing the flames toward us. By 9 p.m., the fire appeared to be contained, if not under control. With the absence of our sprinkler system, Al volunteered to stand “fire watch” overnight; so at 11 p.m., I returned home.
When I returned to work on Monday, the city was under martial law with National Guard troops stationed at all major intersections. “The Great Chelsea Fire” continued to smolder for several days with firefighters constantly responding to hot spots. When it was finally over, 18 blocks and hundreds of Chelsea businesses had been destroyed.
The following are excerpts from a story that ran in the February 1974 issue of Yankee Magazine, titled “Everything was Burning” by Fred Hapgood.
People had been predicting a conflagration for 55 years.
Technically, a conflagration is a fire burning out of control over a number of city blocks. Emotionally, it is a horror that lives with people forever and ever…
They had more than enough warning. In February the National Board of Fire Underwriters listed the city as “having the highest potential for conflagration than any city in the United States.” In 1968, it was found that Chelsea had more fires per capita than any city in the country. Nor does Chelsea lack firefighting expertise. The Fire Department itself is considered the most professional in the state, and it is more than likely that the Chelsea population at large knows as much about fires as the members of the fire departments of some towns.
A week later I spoke with Frank Moran, a 29-year-old postal worker who has lived in Chelsea all his life. “A lot of people around here think the fire is the best thing that ever hit Chelsea,” he said. Look at it this way. No one was killed or hurt. And that area was no rose.
“It’s a standing joke,” Frank Moran remarked. “You ask somebody, ‘Where’ve you been?’ He’ll say, ‘At the fire,’ and you laugh. Chelsea has so many fires. They’re a big social thing. After dinner, you go out, walk to wherever the fire is that evening, and pal around with some friends.” Even though I suspected that Mr. Moran was humoring me ever so slightly, it is no surprise that the president of the International Association of Fire Buffs, Morris Torf, is a Chelsea man.
Later, a Chelsea firefighter singled out three among the hundreds of different causes that contributed to this inferno: First, the price of scrap tires had dropped and the Chelsea merchants, awaiting higher prices, had been building stockpiles of them all over the area. Second, when a roof falls through the floors of a burning building, the escaping air lofts fragments, most of which will be on fire, high into the air. Third, the huge blaze, driven by a 40 mph westerly wind, created a strong updraft which sucked in a sea wind from the east. The two winds in combination recorded gusts up to 100 mph.
The fire break chosen was the Williams School, or as it was called that day, Firepoint North. Commanding it was Chief Joseph Scanlon from Lynn who was among the first of the 2,000 firefighters from 90 communities and four states that Newton Control sent to Chelsea.
May 11, 2016 at 9:57 pm
i was a little girl when that fire happened and i remember my mother walking me to school going under the bridge down to the williams school everything was blocked off school was called off ,the smoke was so thick you could barely see your feet. it was a huge fire , very devastating, almost indescribable. just a very horrible day for the city of chelsea. thank you for listening sherri leach.
June 6, 2016 at 11:01 am
Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us and our readers. We agree it was a devastating and memorable day for the whole city. Luckily no one was seriously injured. Thanks for reading!
All the best,
Lindsay @Chelsea Clock
May 16, 2017 at 8:33 am
I was 11 years old, living in East Boston, we couldn’t even see the sky, nothing but black smoke, we almost had to evacuate because there was a fear of the flames approaching the gas tanks near the bridge! very scary .
May 20, 2017 at 9:53 am
My dad was a Chelsea firefighter, Joseph MacDonald, this was far from a joke of a fire or funny in anyway. We lost 18 city blocks people lost everything they had and school was difficult because we got seperate shifts. I was afraid my dad my never come home the wind and fire were a big scare for us all. It burned 4days or more and the reserves and army trucks were everywhere. My friends slept in shelters. It was a horrible thing for many to endure. We became closer to one another because of it. Although, some people may think we needed a change, we are family in Chelsea,one way or another till this day. Debbie MacDonald
October 7, 2017 at 11:07 pm
My parents and two younger sisters had moved out of Chelsea (Maverick St.) in the Summer of ’71 to Malden. My grandmother remained there on the first floor. You could see the center span of the Tobin Bridge and The Pru outside my attic bedroom window in Malden. We all climbed out the window onto the roof and watched the orange sky and the flames that appeared to be RIGHT UNDERNEATH that center span. It was scary as a child. Our grandmother was stuck in Chelsea that night, but on the OTHER side of town. My father couldn’t get into the city to pick her up and drive her back to Malden to stay with us for the night. Oddly, its memory has stayed with me all these years. I’m 54 now. I was barely eight then. Hope no one here was TOO traumatized by it.
October 13, 2019 at 6:52 am
I was playing golf and first saw the smoke from the first green of Sagamore golf course in Lynnfield. Driving home to Revere, I thought my house might be on fire. The closer I got, the more worried I became. When I got home, we had smoke in the backyard. The next day I was driving to work over the Tobin bridge and it looked like photos I’ve seen of Hiroshima after the bomb hit.
October 13, 2019 at 10:29 am
I lived on Webster Ave. in Chelsea at the time of the fire. Fortunately, for me, the wind was blowing out of the west, not the south. While the area smoldered for days the picture at the top of this article would be from the day of the fire, not 2 days later.
I ran down Washington Ave. to Bellingham Square during the fire. A large firebrand landed a few feet from me and I ran back home. The next day at school (Northeastern University) someone commented on how my clothes smelled of smoke.
October 13, 2019 at 5:56 pm
I remember living on Bellingham accross from th3 hospital. My mom walked us down the hill to eastern av3 and accross Chelsea street bridge. My three brothers typically took off toward the fire. I can’t imagine what my mom was thinking during our evacuation.
October 15, 2019 at 7:38 pm
It was the Christening day for my daughter Amanda. Many members of our family and friends were turned away at the Chelsea borders and were unable to attend. I thought all this delicious food would go to waste. My husband and I brought a ton of food to the main Chelsea firehouse downtown. The fireman were very thankful and the food did not go to waste 😊
October 16, 2019 at 10:52 pm
Having grown up in Chelsea, but living in Revere as a teenager at the time, I happen to ride my bike towards Chelsea, as I often did. I saw a cloud of smoke rising from a singular shack rising to the ski. I followed it , it led me to the Washington Avenue, near Carter Street. I watch as one billowing black smoke from one small shack turn to two, three, ten, twenty, thirty+ shacks. Fire engines arrived, but the fire overpowered their attempts. I realized, at that point, that the Chelsea the I grew up in and loved, was in the hands of a Higher Power, and I turned my bicycle around and I went home and prayed for Chelsea.
November 14, 2019 at 9:42 am
At the time, my dad was stationed at Chelsea Naval Hospital which was located right under the bridge on the river. He was stuck at work at the hospital and couldn’t get home. He said the smoke was crazy and scary. We lived in Braintree and we could see the smoke from there!
April 28, 2021 at 3:59 pm
I was also stationed at the Naval Hospital, and my wife, two sons, and I lived in Chelsea. Since the fire occurred on Sunday, I was at home with my family, about a half-mile from where the fire was eventually brought under control. From our 2nd floor apartment, I alternated watching the fire from the front porch and the roof of the house. We had the car packed and were ready to evacuated when told to do so.
The flames and smoke seemed to rise hundreds of feet into the air, blown by very strong winds. Were we scared? You bet! We would have evacuated without being told to in a very few minutes.
June 20, 2022 at 6:03 am
My father’s business, The Edel-Brown Tool and Die Company was destroyed in the fire. It happened after I was discharged from the USMC. But, he was a GE prime contractor and was given space, use of machines, and able to retain his staff to rebuild.
October 20, 2022 at 4:39 pm
I had just moved from Gerrish ave with my wife, to our new home on Cape Cod, two friend’s from Chelsea were down to celebrate my birthday October 14th. Thank God their home on Grove street was ok.