Monday, October 24, 2005

Apple #118: Boston Molasses Flood

A couple days ago, I was listening to a cooking show on the radio, and the chef was asked how to make Boston Baked Beans. He said that you can make them either with rum or with molasses, both of which were very much available in Boston once upon a time. He said that the molasses in Boston was part of the reason for the Great Molasses Flood, when a barrel of molasses exploded and oozed through the streets and actually killed a lot of people. I had to know more.

(Photo from The Natural Path

  • In 1919, molasses was the primary sweetener used in the United States. It was used to make cookies, cakes, and bread. Molasses was also used to distill rum and to produce industrial alcohol for ammunition. Boston was a major US port and the distillery capital of the US at the time. This is why Boston Baked Beans are made either with rum or molasses, and this is why there was an enormous tank of molasses in Boston in 1919.
  • On January 15, 1919, the United States Alcohol Company's largest molasses storage tank, located in Boston's North End, exploded. This wasn't just a barrel of molasses, this was a tank, built 52 feet high and holding about 2.3 million gallons of molasses, or 14,000 tons of the stuff.
  • On this particular day, the temperature had risen rapidly from 2 degrees F the day before to an unseasonably warm 40 degrees F. Additionally, warm molasses from a new shipment was pumped into the tank on top of the colder molasses that had been there the previous freezing day. Fermentation started happening in the tank, and the resulting gases caused the tank to explode.
  • When the tank ruptured, enormous chunks of metal were propelled into buildings and structures all around the tank in Boston's North End. One chunk smashed through a stone pillar which supported an elevated railroad. Without this pillar, a portion of the railway sagged and then fell to the ground. Another section of the tank wall fell on a nearby firehouse and crushed it, burying three firemen in the ruins.
  • After the initial explosion, the following vacuum it created sucked air from nearby buildings back to the tank, causing further damage. The vacuum also picked up a truck and dragged it across the street back toward the tank.
  • But the worst of the damage came from the molasses. A huge geyser of it spewed into the air and rained down onto the city. It formed an initial wall of flowing molasses, reported to be anywhere from 15 to 30 feet high, and traveling at 25 to 35 miles per hour. Not only was it moving fast, but the river of molasses was several feet deep and cooking-hot. Those who waded in to save people trapped in the molasses flood were themselves hopelessly mired.
  • One city building where employees were eating their lunch was demolished by the flood and the wreckage was strewn some 50 yards. Another city building, which had an office on the ground floor and tenement apartments above, was torn from its foundation.

Photo from Eric Postpischil's Molasses Disaster pages

  • In all, 21 people were killed an 150 more were injured. People suffocated in the molasses, they were cooked alive in it, or they were swept by the wave into the harbor.
  • When the flood stopped, the river of molasses cooled but was still a sticky, nasty mess. Horses trapped in the goo could not be rescued and had to be shot. Fresh water did nothing to move the molasses, so salt water was pumped in from the harbor and sprayed over the area, thus destroying any vegetation that stood a chance to grow in the soil.
  • It took more than 6 months to get the molasses off the sides of buildings, the cobblestones in the streets, and off cars and homes. People reported seeing molasses oozing out of cracks in sidewalks periodically for the next 30 years. People also claim that on a hot day in Boston's North End, you can still smell the molasses.
  • At that time, Boston's North End was populated mainly by Italian workers, most of whom had not yet sought citizenship and were working poor. 119 separate legal claims were brought against the company, and though they tried to blame the explosion on bomb-wielding Italian anarchists, the argument didn't fly and the company paid $650,000 in settlements. In today's money, that's in the millions.
  • It was discovered that the tank was originally constructed according to no regulations, because nobody agreed on whether it was an industrial device or a structure. As a result, it was built without plans and never subjected to inspection. The tank had leaked constantly, but instead of patching the leak, the company painted the tank the same color as the leaking molasses.
  • After this tragedy and the investigations into the tank itself, the Boston Building Department tightened its engineering and architecture regulations. Surviving North End Italians, galvanized by what they saw as unfair treatment, sought citizenship in enormous numbers so that they could vote and have a voice in their government.

Tony Sakalauskas, "The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919," 3 A.M. Magazine, 2001
CNN, "Great molasses flood remembered," January 23, 2004
Useless Information, The Great Boston Molasses Tragedy, The Great Molasses Flood
Eric Postpischil's Molasses Disaster pages, November 24, 2004

1 comment:

  1. Priceless. It sounds like a tale from Abe Simpson. If it didn't have so much detail, I'd assume it was made up.


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