A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF THE 1908 FIRE
A PALM SUNDAY TO REMEMBER
Written in 1982 by Arthur R. Anderson (1901-1996) longtime resident of East Boston
On an April Saturday afternoon in 1908, when I was a young lad of seven years I was playing near my house on Falcon Street, East Boston (which faced Chelsea Creek) when strong winds knocked me down, rendering me a bit dizzy. A speck of dust got into one of my eyes, which stung me considerably. Staggering, and crawling on all fours up the alleyway leading to our house, I stumbled into the kitchen, panting for breath before my astonished mother who asked, "What on earth happened to you?" I said, "The wind knocked me down again and again and I spun around like a top. What kind of a wind is that, Mom?" (I said all this after I had recovered from a fainting spell, and mother had relieved me from the offending object in an eye). "Dunno,"she said, "but I think you'd better stay in the house for the rest of the day." What an awful wind!
After dusk, after winds had blown in the front door twice, and hearing the clanging of fire engines, I got brave and stood outside on a street corner next to our house, and told my mother, "It sounds like there's a fire in Chelsea." She shuddered saying, "Let's hope 'tis a small one that'll be put out quickly, because with high winds we're been having all month, it would be awful if a fire should spread with all those wooden buildings packed so closely together like over here in East Boston."
Next morning, I walked to the Swedish Lutheran Church on Saratoga Street where I attended Sunday school (which the Salvation Army now owns). The day was fair, sunny, blue skies with fleecy clouds and very windy like it had been all night. 'Twas a peaceful Sabbath and I could hear the tolling of church bells which was a joy to hear. Beautiful!
On the top of Putnam and White Streets, I paused, turned around, buttoned my loosened jacket, and gazed at a clear view of a part of Chelsea a short distance away, and the placid waters of Chelsea Creek. Nothing stirring, it presented tranquility beyond description, and I reveled in some endearing moments in the beauty of it all.
I saw tugboats moored against the wharves on the East Boston side; I perceived two, three and four masted schooners which presented a splendid sight. Don't see that nowadays!
Several times I turned around, reluctant to stop gazing at the loveliness of it all; a Chelsea Church's spire gleaming in the sunlight, against a blue sky intermingled with white clouds. Then after one more longing look, I forced myself to get going to my destination, plunging down the hilly street on the other side, and hence quickening my pace in the meanwhile. Always I got to the church on time, I didn't want to make this an exception regardless of the circumstances involved.
After Sunday school I overheard a conversation between two men. It went something like this in the church: First one said, "Wonder how they made out in the Chelsea fire district last night? Didn't see anything in the newspaper this morning, did you?" The other replied, "No. It couldn't have been too much, or we would have heard something by now. Maybe Monday's news will tell the story." The other said, "Yeah, we'll see, 'bye."
In walking home, I noticed something different, and that was the absence of people. 'Twas a ghost town look! I was all alone! Not a solitary human being in sight, or any form of life. I was deeply puzzled at the sudden state of affairs, and couldn't make anything out of it at all. I said to myself, "what the heck!" and "gee whiz!"
The more streets I covered, I grew more and more puzzled, wondering where everybody and anybody was! My heart was beating fast, and I had a panicky feeling.
When I got to the top of the hill, where I previously paused to admire the glorious scenes of the day, I gazed at blackened skies over the City of Chelsea, belching smoke and flames, untold numbers of burning embers shooting up to the sky, and headed over to the East Boston side.
It seemed to me, there were millions of firelights, small and big hurtling through the air, and with the naked eye I perceived street block after street block, eaten up in undiminished fury. I was witnessing the holocaust in full blast then. I gazed with bug-eyed terror, and clutched my throat involuntary with a growing sense of horror at this doleful intrusion!
Then I thought of the reservoir nearby (where the East Boston High School now stands) and I walked towards a fence and looking upwards (50 feet or so) to the top, I saw a maze of humanity gathered there, so I joined them and wriggled to a front row of spectators, and had a panoramic view of the ill-fated city.
A man trained his binoculars on the scene, and I asked him," May I look through them?" "Sure," he said. "Look over there at the Meridian Street Bridge (about a quarter of a mile away) and tell me what you see." I heard a rumbling sound of screaming people and was wondering for the moment where that came from.
I could hardly believe my eyes and ears as to what I saw and heard - a mass of humanity was rushing pell-mell over the bridge, shouting, pushing baby carriages, carts with belongings, animals in their arms, all scrambling for a place of safety in East Boston, and to get ahead of the flames that was perilously closing up to their heels. I said to the man, " I see hundreds running across the bridge"." "Yeah," said the man, "They're running for their lives! Listen Sonny (pointing to Chelsea), this is one Sunday, when you grow up, most of us won't be here, but evidently you will, this is one day you won't forget." I said, "I won't ever forget, if ever I live to grow up!"
Now writing this in 1982 - seventy-four years later! It's a safe bet that perhaps none of those oldsters are alive today!
"D'ya mind if I look a little longer through the spy glass of yours?," I asked the man. He said, "Sure, take your time, Sonny." I did, and the scenes of the devastation looked much closer, almost on top of me I thought. Millions of firelights were airborne over to us spectators, many ducked in order not to be hit by the big fiery embers, I with them! I have not seen any pyrotechnics since then that could surpass that display, or even equaled it - never!
On top of that reservoir, I heard fire engines from everywhere it seems - north, east, south and west. I looked down one East Boston street and distinctly saw flaming sparks from the horses' hoofs as they galloped with incredible speed - hook and ladder teams and "Smokies" as they were sometimes called. The once placid waters of Chelsea were churned into foam when I saw tug boats frantically plowing the waves with barges behind them to a place of safety from the the fiery shorelines.
Finally, I came down the hill of the reservoir and through a fence I got to our home at 139 Falcon Street - same abode today - mother demanded, "Where've you been all this time?" "To church," I replied. Mom said, "That was hours ago." I replied, "Ma, Chelsea's burning up!" "I know, I know, East Boston may be next," she said. Meanwhile, she was hastily filling bags and boxes with boxes for possible evacuation. "Anybody else doin' that?," I asked. She told me, "Yes, but some have beat it to safer places leaving their home as is. We may have to go anytime."
Fortunately, the situation calmed down and we didn't have to go. (I later heard some small fires occurred on the East Boston side but were quickly put out.)
Once, outside, I heard dynamiting explosions which shook me considerably. A passerby explained, "They're dynamiting to halt the spread of flames." Couldn't make that out, it seemed to this seven year old boy, that it added to the conflagration, but I was too young to understand that, till later on.
I walked to the Meridian Street Bridge and observed guardsmen patrolling with bayonets fixed.
Then for the first time I heard the word "looting" which seems to have been prevalent at that time. I heard someone in the crowd that gathered near the bridge saying in this vein, "Anyone caught stealing and preying on another's helplessness, deserves to be shot at once on the spot!" His companion agreed and added something like this, "Either that, or like they did in the Old West of yore, a hanging to the nearest tree or lamp post would be good riddance to bad trash!"
Later on, I was able to go to Chelsea with someone, and viewed the skeleton of buildings and much of the devastated area - an estimated 350 acres burned.
To sum it up: That vantage point on top of that reservoir, seeing the glowing spectacle of fountains of sparks enveloping Chelsea and a part of East Boston, tow boats churning Chelsea Creek drawing boats to safety; the crowds of people on rooftops everywhere, etc., in contrast to the tranquility of that early Sabbath morning, it was indeed, to me, a Palm Sunday to always remember!