#TBT From the NFPA Archives: The Great Chelsea Fire of April 12, 1908

Blog Post created by jrodowicz Employee on Apr 12, 2018
On this day in history 110 years ago, Chelsea, Massachusetts suffered a conflagration that destroyed half of the city and 12 million dollars of infrastructure, killed 19 people, and left 15,000-18,000 people homeless (sources vary). In the July 1908 NFPA Quarterly, three Inspectors from the Underwriters’ Bureau of New England frankly reported, “Students of fire protection engineering will find in the Chelsea fire little of scientific interest but municipal authorities might profit by the lessons it teaches.” The Inspectors felt this way because in their eyes, the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 was entirely preventable.
General view of conflagration from the northwest at about 11.30 a.m.

The early 20th century industrial landscape can be hard to imagine. In the case of Chelsea in 1908, there was a “Rag District,” which was a cluster of textile mills, dealers, and collectors. This meant there were buildings that contained raw cotton, equipment that required fuel to produce textiles, and stifling air to top it off. Surrounding these buildings were literal rags, sitting in piles to be recycled for cloth and paper production. Often these rags were soiled with water and unknown chemicals. In the NFPA Quarterly, the Inspectors paint this scene with distaste:

“There were in this ‘rag district,’…about two hundred rag and junk collectors and dealers. There were probably at least fifty rag shops…In certain streets, nearly every shed, stable and yard contained rags. Vacant stretches of land were utilized for drying purposes, the rags being spread out all over the ground. Rags were even dried on lines in back yards. It seems as if little serious attempt was made to properly supervise these rag dealers…The consequence was that the district was a conflagration breeder of the worst kind.”
View in Marginal Street opposite Magee Furnace Co. showing smoke from oil plants.

In their report, the Inspectors also acknowledged that the fire would have been controlled hours earlier had the wind not been especially strong that day. The fire itself started sometime around 10:30 am in a junkyard, where some rag piles caught fire. However, the wind carried burning rags onto the roofs of nearby factories, which were engulfed within minutes. In recounting how the conflagration spread, the Inspectors wrote:


“[The fire] leaped whole blocks...The fire was beyond control…[it] extended so rapidly that many of the buildings in the residential section burned without any effort being made to save them…The shower of sparks, pieces of wood, parts of buildings and the contents, all blazing, were carried by the wind far ahead…setting fire wherever they struck.”  [NFPA Quarterly, vol. 2 no. 1]

In the afternoon, explosions rocked through a few oil plants, an oil barge, dozens of fuel tanks, and a sewage pumping station. By 6 pm, a stretch of land a mile and a half long and a half mile wide had been completely burned over (visit the NFPA Archives if you want to see a map). This left the city in ruins. In reporting the 1908 conflagration, the Inspectors emphasized on how little the City of Chelsea cared to change the dangers of their Rag District. It seems that even this destructive fire didn’t persuade them because another conflagration hit Chelsea in 1973 and this Second Great Chelsea Fire started two hundred yards away from the 1908 fire.

Written by Jenny DeRocher, Simmons College '18 MLIS Candidate.

For more information regarding this and other moments in fire history, please feel free to reach out to the NFPA Research Library & Archives.

The NFPA Archives houses all of NFPA's publications, both current and historic.
Library staff are available to answer research questions from members and the general public.