Thirty-six years ago – Chelsea Fire of 1973

October 14, 2009
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This week marks the 36th anniversary of the Chelsea Fire of 1973.

There are still many of us who recall that day and year, and many among us who spent the day in Chelsea when the city almost burned to the ground.

Thirty-six years later and the city is an entirely changed place, with the area where the fire occurred as different as it can be considering what came before.

The center of the fire is the Demoulas shopping center.

This is where much of old Chelsea burned in a raging swirl on a windy October 14, with the dust and ashes of this city’s largest ward going up into the sky and being spread across the face of the earth as so much dust.

The entire area burned to a crisp on that day is all part of a much more economically viable Chelsea.

At the time of the fire, the city was cascading into the ground, with most of the buildings that burned vacant, and the businesses unsuitable compared with what exists today.

Also, the city was economically dead, contracting, beaten down by years of neglect and out migration of its first families and major businesses.

One of the reasons the fire did such a thorough job is because the city lacked an adequate water system.

When firefighters attached their hoses to hydrants, most of them didn’t work – and the city nearly burned to the ground on account of it.

In fact, firefighters that day had to run hoses longer than a half mile to working hydrants, using pumpers as transfer stations of sorts to power the water. This was especially true in Bellingham Square on the evening of the fire when the city’s life or death was being held in the balance by the raging fire.

Hoses ran from the Williams School, through Bellingham Square, and up the length of Bellingham Street in order to connect with working hydrants.

Giant burning embers floated through the air – air so thick with smoke it was hard to breathe.

On Broadway at Jimmy’s Café at the height of the fire, the place was rocking.

Jimmy’s was a small bar – a veritable hole in the wall.

The electricity was out. But inside Jimmy’s Budweiser was flowing and men and women were drinking as the city nearly burned to the ground around them.

That was one of many, many scenes that I can recall almost four decades after the fire changed the face and history of the city.

The day after the fire, I walked all around the smoldering city.

Senator Ted Kennedy did the same.

I took photographs that day, which appears in the newspaper today.

It isn’t every photographer or reporter who gets to witness a city burning down.

Even fewer get to witness the city of their great grandparents and grand parents disappearing in angry, swirling, plumes of black smoke fed by raging fire inside.

It was quite a day, October 14, 1973.

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  • Irene Melamed Bergman

    I remember trying desperately to drive into Chelsea to get my Dad Out He lived in the senior housing under the bridge. This was his second Big Chelsea Fire as he was a 3 year old living in Chelsea for the first one. The fire stopped at my childhood home 16 Elm Street. Most of the other houses on my street were destroyed and my house was later taken down to be a KMart parking lot, now I guess the Demoulous lot. Lots of wonderful memories went up in smoke.


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