On October 13, 1973, I drove to the top of Powderhorn Hill in the early evening to catch a glimpse of the Boston skyline. I was 23 then. I am 62 today.
I remember clearly looking out over Chelsea, watching traffic heading south speeding over the Tobin Bridge. Traffic heading north appeared as a long stream of flickering automobile headlights. The bridge traffic sounds – kind of a ongoing muffled mechanical rush – could be heard clearly. Down below me from atop Powderhorn Hill, the streetlights were on all over the city. The air was crisp. The sky was clear. I watched as planes came in to land at Logan Airport, gliding through the darkness silently, their red lights blinking perhaps two miles away before touching down.
In front of me was the city in its form as I had known it since I was a young man. From the top of the hill, it always looked the same and had essentially been this way since the early 1950’s.
The bridge cut a swath right down the center of the city. I have never known a view of the city from the hill without the bridge cutting it in half.
Where the Market Basket is today was the heart and soul of immigrant Chelsea during the turn of the last Century and well into the 1940’s.
By the 1950’s, this part of the city was a decrepit mess heading into the ground. On October 13, 1973 as I looked out upon it in the darkness from the top of the hill it appeared benign, without much shape or form and nothing new to redefine a skyline and cityscape I had known all my life.
Twenty-four hours later.
I stood in the same place at the top of the hill and a great fire was roaring although it was close to its end after devouring the city West of the bridge for all of the day.
Nearly every building West of the bridge – from today’s Kayem plant to the railroad tracks on Everett Avenue had burned to the ground.
A big part of quiet and unassuming Chelsea, entirely alive even if decrepit, had been swept away in rolling black clouds and flames 200 feet high in an explosive conflagration that forever changed the life of the city.
From atop the hill that night of the fire a wall of water was being put up by firefighters at the old Williams School on its eastern side as the fire crept toward the school.
This was a famous last stand by firefighters trying to save the school and probably the rest of the city from city hall and to the east – which had burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1908.
Burning embers were falling out of the sky. Thick smoke permeated everything making it hard to see. Hundreds of firefighters made the courageous stand.
They beat the fire there – at the wall to the Williams School and the city was saved.
But not before a big part of the city’s history had been swept up into the sky and sent to the far ends of the earth as so much dust.
What remained the next day for those of us who surveyed the damage and who walked through the ruins were memories of the city from the day before and the wonder of how everything had so dramatically changed in 24 hours.
Everyone who experienced the fire will never forget it. It was an event beyond belief, a fire beyond the scale that all of us have ever known.
After all, who among us can say they watched a city nearly burn to the ground?