Conflagration at Chelsea, 1908

As devastating as the 1973 Chelsea, Massachusetts (read more HERE), fire was, a far more disastrous one occurred on April 12, 1908. See Fire and Water Engineering’s initial report (April 15, 1908), “Conflagration at Chelsea,” HERE.  An editorial comment on wooden construction and the complete fire report, “The Chelsea, Mass., Conflagration,”  appeared in the April 22, 1908 issue HERE. The first alarm, received at 10:44 a.m., involved a fire in a pile of rags laid out to dry in a vacant lot. The rag-and-junk business was prominent in the city, and many buildings contained large quantities of old rags. Although this initial fire was put out, 45-mile-per-hour winds carried embers all over, and fire spread to a three-story rag shop, a tar paper manufacturer, and other structures. When it was all over, more than one square mile–a third of the city, including the city hall, the public library, 20 business blocks, and between 400 and 500 tenements were in ashes.

The April 22, 1908, editorial noted that “the more fire-resistive structures were destroyed as quickly and as completely as wooden ones” simply because wooden structures were so predominant. “The same evil methods prevailed in San Francisco and helped spread the flames in every direction,” the editor wrote, referring to the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. Fire and Water Engineering urged more restrictive fire codes to limit or eliminate wooden construction, especially in congested areas. “A preference should be given to monolithic concrete structures,” the publication concluded.

 In the aftermath of the fire, Chelsea enacted more restrictive fire codes, which real estate interests and property owners opposed, citing the high cost of “fireproof construction.” In the July 8, 1908, edition, a Fire and Water Engineering editorial HERE declared, “It is to be hoped that the outcry of these self-seekers will not be listened to for a moment…the safety of the people–the majority–is the law to be followed, and should be…to the fullest extent.”

An Underwriters Bureau of New England report cited HERE, “The Condition at Chelsea” in the December 2, 1908, issue blamed among other things, bad city administration and careless building inspection. However, under improved “fire limits,” Fire and Water Engineering said, the rag-and-junk shop area was reduced by half, and such operations must be licensed by the city fire chief and be subject to frequent inspections. A contemporary observer noted the special construction required under new building laws makes the further introduction of such businesses “almost prohibitory.”


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