The Great Chelsea Fire of 1908

Last week marked the 104th anniversary of the Great Chelsea Fire.

It was a conflagration that changed forever the history of this city.

In fact, the fire erased more history than it created. In doing so on a windy Palm Sunday at the beginning of the 20th Century, Chelsea became a new and modern city to the fullest while a great deal of its cherished past went up in raging flames and rolling black smoke and was spread to the far ends of the earth as so much ash and dust.

Nearly everything about the city morphed dramatically into something almost unrecognizable after the fire and during the re-build.

The grandest and most ornate Victorian single-family homes lining Bellingham Street to the top of the hill and all around it were incinerated. So too was the entirely American patrician way of life for the owners of those grand homes – some of whom were the founding fathers of this city whose families had lived here for 200 years. Multi-family row houses and apartment housing replaced them. A great number of the old families fled the city after the fire. They moved elsewhere.

At the same time the patricians were moving out, the newcomers to the city from Europe were flocking here by the thousands. At the time of the burning of Chelsea, there were perhaps 20,000 immigrant people all struggling to achieve the American Dream who had come here from Germany, Russia, Poland, Ireland and a half dozen Old World nations. They came here largely penniless and unable to speak English. The fire nearly wiped them out.

On the morning after, about 10,000 were homeless, their belongings destroyed, and what remained was piled in carts and horse drawn wagons.

My great-grandfather Josiah and my grandfather Louis were living on Tremont Street at this time. They had been living there since they came to America from Belorussia in 1885. My great-grandfather ran a butcher shop in a walk down basement space in that old wooden building now owned by Frank Mastracola bordering the small park.

The fire didn’t get down to lower Broadway. It had stopped further up by Chelsea Square. So the Resneks, like so many other families – including the Quigleys, who were living in the Imperial, a building which still stands on lower Broadway – were not burned out. They didn’t lose their homes. But when the rebuild of the city went forward, my grandfather was one of the first to build on Williams Street, where the courthouse is today.

The Resnek Family – with four young sons, moved into that building in 1908. My grandfather had the builders inscribe his initials, LHR 1908, into a stone that was placed over the entrance to the building.

The fire was a transformational moment in the life and times of this city.

What had been since its founding in 1624 an essentially Protestant, white, brick sidewalked cobblestone street community with many churches and row upon row of single family homes with small backyards and gardens, rod iron fences, mature shade trees and many, many shops, was rebuilt in modern style.

Much of the past disappeared in about 24 hours here, although I believe the worst loss the city had to endure up to this moment in time was the destruction of the Frost Library – which stood exactly where the modern Chelsea Public Library stands today.

Inside that stately Frost Library were the records – priceless really – of the history of the city. The loss of 265 years worth of public records and artifacts was insurmountable and what we are left with today are only precious bits of what came before.

After the fire, the determined residents who remained here or who came back here to stake their claim to a bit of this city, were looking forward instead of looking back.

Time consuming and costly craftsmanship gave way to simplified mass production type housing made for struggling families than for the privileged and the rich.

The city, after all, had to get back on its feet. The fire had destroyed so much of it that everything important had to be built new.

This included the city hall, the public library, the Central Fire Station, the Chelsea Savings Bank, and several of the churches, including St. Rose. Many, many streets had to be repaved and trimmed with granite sidewalks. The fire had been so intense, the heat of the flames so profound,  the old granite curbstones were reduced to dust.

Broadway was rebuilt as a broad street with four and five story brick buildings and with four or five unit single story buildings housing the same number of stores in long rows on both sides from where the city hall is today to the far southern end of Chelsea Square.

It wasn’t so different before the fire.

Broadway began as an Indian path. Then it became a wider path with horses and commerce moving in wagons and then it widened to a road with buildings and on and on.

At the time of the Civil War, Broadway remained as it had been for 200 years before that – the route from the ferry at the edge of the Mystic River that went in a straight line through Revere across the marsh and to Lynn, then all the way up Highland Avenue to Salem. That roadway was a great place to stable your horse, to fix your carriage, to buy grains and foodstuffs, to have your clothing repaired or to buy a gun or find a doctor, a cobbler or an apothecary. As a ferry stop, there were plenty of places to find a drink.

The Chelsea of the 1880’s and 1890’s became a famous manufacturing center with grand buildings lining Broadway. With the population exploding, it was a changing place, a vital place with important people and old families mixing with the foreigners – the Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Polish and the Russians. The Protestants were now being challenged by a greater number of Jews and Catholics who were transforming the city.

The new immigrant city going up all around Chelsea was part of the great industrial transformation of the nation, which, in reality, had begun here long before the 1908 fire.

Like many cities of its type throughout the nation, Chelsea went from being a pastoral place where men worked in the fields and women worked on crafts inside their homes. This came during the decade of the Industrial Revolution.

From 1848 until the fire, Chelsea’s reincarnation as a manufacturing city-immigrant dumping ground, was something to behold.

The night of the fire in 1908, my grandfather and his wife, his father and his wife, my father and his brothers, all under the age of 9, were tossed into my grandfather’s wagon for a ride down Williams Street, to the Meridian Street Bridge. They rode over it – embers falling from the sky and billowing smoke filling the air, into East Boston and went up to the top of Eagle Hill.

“We all watched Chelsea burning,” my father told me.

“It was a night I will never forget,” he added.

He was in his 60’s when he related this bit of anecdotal narrative to me. This would be in the early late 1960’s.

By that time in my life, I was working behind the counter in my father’s drugstore in Chelsea Square, in a building my grandfather bought in 1917, 9 years after the fire. In fact, the Exchange Building, as it was always known, sits on the foundation of what used to be a grand Victorian bow front commercial building called the McCann Building, which was destroyed in the 1908 fire.

I didn’t grow up here. I grew-up in Marblehead. But I was discovering Chelsea – so to speak – during this time in my life now so long ago. The city was falling into the ground. The great places all built after the fire were all decadent shells of what they used to be and virtually nothing had changed along the length of Broadway since the fire by the time the 1960’s and 1970’s were upon us.

Even the buildings and the blocks built after the fire by my grandfather and so many others on Williams Street, were vacant, hulking wrecks; abandoned, windows broken, everything rotted out and in need of a wrecker’s ball. An entire ward of the city was like that with its center where the Marketbasket is today.

At this time in my life I used to drive over to Williams Street whenever I was in Chelsea just to get a look at the stone with my grandfather’s initials, LHR 1908, in the doorway of that decrepit building.

I was proud and felt connected each time I set my eyes upon them … and I still think that way whenever I pass the new courthouse and wonder about what came before with a bit of awe about how far all of us whose personal history is inextricably connected with this city have come in our lives.

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