The fortress of Chelyaba, from which the city takes its name, was founded at the location of the Bashkir village of Chelyaby by colonel Alexey (Kutlu-Muhammed) Tevkelev to protect the surrounding trade routes from possible attacks by Bashkir outlaws. During Pugachev's Rebellion, the fortress withstood a siege by the rebel forces in 1774, but was eventually captured for several months in 1775. In 1782, as a part of Ufa Viceroyalty that was later reformed into Orenburg Governorate, Chelyabinsk became a seat of a its own uyezd and finally was granted town status and its current name in 1787.

Until the late 19th century, Chelyabinsk was a small provincial town. In 1892, the Samara-Zlatoust Railway was completed which connected it with Moscow and the rest of European Russia. Also in 1892, construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Chelyabinsk started and in 1896 the city was linked to Ekaterinburg. Chelyabinsk became the hub for relocation to Siberia. For fifteen years more than fifteen million people - a tenth of Russia - passed through Chelyabinsk. Some of them remained in Chelyabinsk, which contributed to its rapid growth. In addition, in Chelyabinsk was organized custom office set "customs fracture" the bounding duty-free grain and tea to the European part of the country that led to the emergence in mills and set the tea-packing factory. Soon Chelyabinsk started turning into a major trade center, its population reached 20,000 inhabitants by 1897, 45,000 by 1913, and 70,000 by 1917. For rapid growth at the turn of the 20th century, similar to American cities, Chelyabinsk called "Behind the Urals Chicago". During the first Five-Year Plans of the 1930s, Chelyabinsk experienced rapid industrial growth. Several establishments, including the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant and the Chelyabinsk Metallurgical Plant, were built at this time. During World War II, Joseph Stalin decided to move a large part of Soviet factory production to places out of the way of the advancing German armies in late 1941. This brought new industries and thousands of workers to Chelyabinsk. Facilities for the production of T-34 tanks and Katyusha rocket launchers existed in Chelyabinsk. During World War II, it produced 18,000 tanks, and 48,500 tank diesel engines as well as over 17 million units of ammunition. In the press of the time Chelyabinsk was informally called "Tankograd" or "Tank City". The S.M. Kirov Factory no. 185 moved here from Leningrad to produce heavy tanks; it was transferred to Omsk after 1962. 2013 meteor Shortly after dawn on February 15, 2013, a superbolide meteor descended at over 55,000 kilometers per hour (34,000 mph) over the Ural Mountains, exploding at an altitude of 25–30 kilometers (16–19 mi) in a momentary flash as bright as the sun and generating a shock wave that injured over a thousand people. Fragments fell in and around Chelyabinsk. Interior Ministry spokesman Vadim Kolesnikov said 1,100 people had called for medical assistance following the incident, mostly for treatment of injuries from glass broken by the explosions. One woman suffered a broken spine. Kolesnikov also said about 600 square meters (6,000 sq ft) of a roof at a zinc factory had collapsed. A spokeswoman for the Emergency Ministry told the Associated Press that there was a meteor shower, however, another ministry spokeswoman was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying it was a single meteor. The size has been estimated at 17 meters (56 ft) diameter with a mass of 10,000 or 11,000 tonnes. The power of the explosion was about 500 kilotons of TNT (about 1.8 PJ), which is 20–30 times more energy than was released from the atomic bomb exploded in Hiroshima. Luckily, thanks to the high altitude of the explosion the city managed to avoid large casualties and destruction.