Slow as Molasses in January

16 Jan

Forgive me, but I totally forgot to post something yesterday about it being the 87th anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. At my company, we have a welcome lunch for the interns every semester, and somehow the telling of this story by our resident historian has become a traditional part of the “entertainment.” Because it’s one of those true stories that so few people my age know, I thought I’d post a quick summary. Here goes …

Back in the day, molasses was the standard sweetener across the country, used in things like soda, etc. (these days it’s corn syrup). Molasses was also fermented and used in producing ethyl alcohol for use in making liquor and as a key component in the manufacture of munitions. Right here in Boston there was a distillery located over by the North End at 529 Commercial Street with a 50-foot-tall, 240-foot-wide tank that contained 2.5 million gallons of molasses. The stored molasses was supposed to be transferred to a plant situated between Willow Street and what is now named Evereteze Way in Cambridge. Suffice it to say, it never got there.

On January 15, a dull, muffled roar was heard emanating from the six-story-tall tank. This was quickly followed by a huge explosion that sent the tank’s half-inch-thick sheet iron shell flying through the air in three giant pieces, and unleashed a wave of molasses upon the unsuspecting people of the neighborhood. Apparently, the wave was between 8 and 15 feet high, it moved at 35 mph, and exerted a pressure of 2 tons/foot. According to Wikipedia’s entry on the subject, “the molasses wave was of sufficient force to break the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway’s Atlantic Avenue Elevated structure and lift a train off the tracks. Several nearby buildings were also destroyed, and several blocks were flooded to a depth of 2 to 3 feet. Twenty-one people were killed and 150 injured as the molasses crushed and asphyxiated many of the victims to death. Rescuers found it difficult to make their way through the syrup to help the victims.”

Can you just picture this scene? It’s awesome in its scope and destructiveness. It’s like a good disaster movie — The Day After Tomorrow, for example. I mean, the story is real and dramatic, and yes, I know people lost their lives, but how cool does that sound?!? People, we’re talking a fifteen-foot-high wall of molasses!!! Why hasn’t there been a movie made about this yet? There’s even a book that came out in 2004 that provides the perfect title: Dark Tide. No kidding. It’s really called Dark Tide! That’s genius! Jerry Bruckheimer, are you reading this? I hear no less than Nicolas Cage is standing by, ready to take on the leading role.

Anyway, no one knows exactly why all this happened, though a couple of theories posit that it had something to do with the pending ratification of the 18th Amendment, which happened the next day, beginning the Prohibition era. More likely is the fact that unseasonably warm temperatures caused rapid expansion of the molasses and overstressed the tank. The day before, the temperature was only 2 degrees. On the day of the accident, it had risen to an unseasonably warm 40 degrees. (Sounds like this past weekend in reverse.)

Today, only a small plaque at the entrance to Puopolo Park commemorates the flood. But I’ve been told that if you walk through the North End on a hot summer day, you can still smell the molasses coming up from the ground …

(Want more? check out Yankee magazine’s 1965 story about the flood.)

So because this is one of my favorite stories, tragic though it is, I wanted to post something here to commemorate the anniversary.

What say you? Leave a comment here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: