Once the center of the “rag trade,” as the recycling industry was once known, Chelsea’s industrial district is now home to a mix of retail, office and industrial uses developed in the wake of a devastating 1973 fire. Photo by James Sanna | Banker & Tradesman Staff

What: The Chelsea Fire of 1973
When: Oct. 14, 1973
Where: Chelsea 

  • A hot, windy October day, scrap dealers’ stockpiles of tires and other material and low water supply combined to create perfect conditions for a massive conflagration that swept through 18 blocks in Chelsea’s “Rag District,” a light industrial area targeted for urban renewal efforts. 
  • The combined efforts of 60 fire departments around the region were barely able to contain a blaze that, thanks to strong winds, leapfrogged over firefighters’ defensive lines. Ultimately, around 300 buildings burned, 600 people were left jobless and around 1,100 were left homeless. 
  • With the neighborhood to the west of the Tobin Bridge largely resembling what residents at the time described as a war ruin, city officials threw urban renewal efforts into high gear. Five years later to the month, the $15 million Mystic Mall opened its doors, the first of numerous investments in subsequent years by developers like Anthony Simboli, who grossed $71 million from selling an eight-building office-and-industrial portfolio in the area in 2019. 

“Right after the fire, a lot of people were asked to relocate out of Chelsea, but they flatly refused to relocate to other communities where they were offered housing. Everyone wanted to stay in Chelsea so they could be part of rebuilding their neighborhood.”
— Chelsea City Councilor Leo Robinson to documentarians from the National Fire Protection Association in 1974 

To celebrate its 150th anniversary, Banker & Tradesman is highlighting significant moments in the history of Massachusetts’ real estate and banking industries. To suggest a topic, email editorial@thewarrengroup.com.

This Month in History: Massive Fire Sparks New Development

by James Sanna time to read: 1 min