This past week marked the hundredth anniversary of a highly unusual urban disaster, the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.
Upon first hearing of the event, you might be tempted to laugh–how can that even have happened, and how bad could it have been? You’d be surprised.
We begin with a little background. During the Great War, millions of gallons of molasses made their way to Boston in tanker ships from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the West Indies. The molasses was distilled into industrial alcohol for use in war munitions. But by 1919 the war was over, and the molasses in the giant tank at 529 Commercial Street was destined to be made into rum. The clock was ticking on that enterprise; legislation had been proposed during the previous year that would ban alcoholic beverages.*
Right from the start there had been various issues with the tank. The construction had been a rush job, under the supervision of a man whose expertise lay in finance rather than engineering.
Faced with complaints about the tank leaking, the company’s response was to paint the structure brown as a disguise. Neighborhood children were sent with pails to collect molasses from the leaks. And area residents often commented on the way the tank would shudder and groan when full. People were used to these signs of instability, and didn’t see them as anything out of the ordinary.
There’s no way of identifying the gallon that popped the tank’s rivets (that’s right, steel of inadequate thickness was riveted, not welded together), but the result was extraordinary. On January 15, 1919, the tank gave way. The resulting eruption sent a wall of hot molasses 40 feet high, traveling at 35 miles per hour, to devastate the neighborhood, crushing buildings, taking down elevated train tracks, and overcoming people and livestock. The 2.3 million gallons of molasses killed 21 people and injured more than 150 others, many severely. Twenty-five horses numbered among the animals killed.
There’s a plaque on Commercial Street right where a wall of the tank once stood:
Studying the pictures helps us see something of what it might have been like, but to my mind it’s just hard to get a sense of the scale of the disaster. Forty feet high is roughly a three-story building. Accustomed to traveling at highway speeds, we may not think much of 35 miles per hour, but that’s about as fast as one can travel on a galloping horse. Picture a three-story building moving toward you as fast as a horse can gallop, and then remember that this isn’t a wave of water that will wet you and then pass you by.
The work necessary to clean up the north end was also on a scale hard to imagine. In some places, the standing molasses was thigh-high. Firemen tried blasting the molasses away with water from firehoses, others tried soaking it up with sand. In the January temperatures the molasses soon congealed, making matters more difficult. Eventually, a lot of the molasses ended up in Boston Harbor. It’s hard to say what the environmental consequences were likely to have been.
Thinking of all that molasses in the water reminded me of another consumable in the waters around Boston. In 1773 the harbor unwittingly hosted what became known as the Boston Tea Party, in which colonists in disguise dumped crates of British tea into the harbor to protest the imposition of high taxes. Tea in the water, then molasses in the water–these two events were separated by 146 years, but even if they’d happened closer together (or if you like the idea of sweetening your tea with molasses), no good thing was likely to come of the juxtaposition.
Are you aware of other food-related large-scale disasters I should know about?
*In December 1917, Congress approved a resolution to put forth for ratification a constitutional amendment for the prohibition of alcohol (including its manufacture, storage, transportation, importation, exportation and sale). Ratification by 36 states was required before the resolution could be assured of becoming law. Nebraska was the thirty-sixth state to ratify it, on January 16, 1919, the day after the Great Molasses Flood.
[Images: organicculture.com, google maps, Wikipedia, Julia Press/WNPR, Boston Public Library’s Leslie Jones Collection, monovisions.com]