April 12

This Day in History

Disaster

Apr 12, 1908:

Fire threatens Massachusetts oil refineries

A fire in Chelsea, Massachusetts, leaves 12 dead, 85 missing and presumed dead and more than 17,000 homeless on this day in 1908. The fire nearly spread to nearby Boston and its large Standard Oil refinery, but was stopped just in time.

Chelsea is a suburb of Boston, located on a peninsula bordered by Boston Harbor and the Mystic River. At the time, it was home to many factories and adjacent to a neighborhood of recent immigrants, mostly Jews from Russia. At about 11 a.m. on April 12, 1908, Palm Sunday, a fire broke out at the Boston Blacking Company, a company that made shoes and shoe adhesives.

Heavy winds, reaching 40 to 50 miles per hour, rebuffed initial firefighting efforts and the fire quickly spread to nearby homes. Soon, a good portion of the city was on fire. The residents emptied their homes of valuables with hand carts, as it appeared that there would be no stopping the blaze. The business district was completely burned and many schools and churches were razed. In total, nearly a quarter of the town was wiped out.

Oil facilities on the shore across the water from Boston went up in flames and for a time it seemed that the large Standard Oil plant would also burn. This, in turn, would have endangered the whole city of Boston. A sizeable contingent of firefighters worked all day to protect the plant, saving the city.

In the aftermath of the fire, charitable efforts by private organizations raised more than $300,000 to be used toward reconstruction. Despite these efforts, it took nearly 10 years for Chelsea to be completely rebuilt.

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