As a child I was never in a hurry to take out the garbage. We lived on the top floor of a tenement—that meant hauling greasy, brown paper bags down five flights of stairs, then trudging back up those same steps, which only got steeper as trash day approached.
Once, I thought I had come up with a novel way to get the garbage into the cans. I would wait until the janitor—there were no building superintendents back then—put the trash cans out on the curb. Then I would open our living room window, climb onto the fire escape, and with the precision of a B-52 pilot, drop those nasty shopping bags full of chicken bones, blackened fruit, moldy welfare cheese and God-knows-what right into those cans.
I would like to say that I never got an opportunity to carry out my scheme, but being grounded for a month was enough to convince me never to try it again.
Later, I got to hear my mom and her friends declare that, after seeing me drag myself and the garbage through the building, I was moving slower than molasses in January, a quaint phrase but one that does not do justice to the fleet-footedness of that goo.
At 12:40 pm on Wednesday, January 19th, 1919, an unusually warm day in Boston, a loud rumbling noise, followed by a “rat-a-tat-tat” that witnesses described as sounding like a machine gun, startled residents of the city’s North End, which straddles Boston Harbor. The ground shook like a wooden elevated station platform annoyed by a passing train; this was followed by the grating sound of tearing metal.
All watched horrified as a 50-foot-high steel tank, located at 529 Commercial Street, broke apart and unleashed an enormous wave of molasses—15 feet high and 160 feet wide.
For everyone in the area, the world went black—or as dark as molasses—as the monstrous wave of future pancake syrup, moving at a robust 35 miles per hour and exerting a pressure of 2 tons per square foot, engulfed everything within a two-block area. Bridget Clougherty was standing on the porch of her house, when she was knocked over by the wave and drowned; Anthony di Stasio was walking home with his sisters from the Michelangelo School when he was picked up by the wave and carried on its crest as though he were body surfing.
As this early version of The Blob surged along Commercial Street, it broke the girders of the Boston Elevated Railway’s Atlantic Avenue station, lifting a train off the tracks; buildings on the adjacent pier were flattened or swept off their foundations and crushed; employees of the Department of Public Works, firefighters on duty in a nearby station, and children playing in the street were knocked over and drowned, or crushed by the sheer force of 26,000,000 pounds of molasses.
The next day, the Boston Post carried this graphic account: “The sight that greeted the first of the rescuers on the scene is almost indescribable in words. Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was… Horses died like so many flies on sticky flypaper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.”
The Boston Globe reported that people “were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet.” Others had debris hurled at them from the rush of sweet-smelling air. A truck—certainly one of the larger pieces of debris—was picked up and hurled into Boston Harbor by the onrushing wave. Twenty-one people and several horses were killed. The approximately 150 who were injured included people, horses, and dogs; coughing fits became one of the most common ailments after the initial blast. Property damage was estimated at more than $100,000,000 in today’s dollars.
First to the scene were 116 cadets from the U.S.S. Nantucket, a training ship of the Massachusetts Nautical School. They worked to keep curious onlookers from getting in the way of rescuers wading into knee-deep mire to pull out survivors. Soon the Boston Police, Red Cross, Army and other Navy personnel arrived. Many of these people worked through the night. The injured were so numerous that doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital in a nearby building. Some of the dead were so glazed over in molasses that they were hard to recognize. After four days, the search for victims was halted. Two victims who were pulled from the molasses on that last day could not even be identified.
Why Had The Molasses Tank Burst?
At the time, in addition to being used as a sweetener, molasses was fermented to produce rum and ethyl alcohol, the active ingredient in several other alcoholic beverages and a key component in the manufacturing of munitions at the time. Originally built by the Purity Distilling Company four years earlier, the tank could hold up to 2.5 million gallons of molasses.
The Boston newspapers reported that the tank had exploded. The tank’s then current owner, U.S. Industrial Alcohol, claimed that anarchists had dynamited it as an act of sabotage. The company had reaped huge profits during World War I, converting molasses into alcohol to make munitions and providing the doughboys with an alternative to the local drinking water. As a rich and powerful symbol of capitalism, Industrial Alcohol was a ripe target for anarchists. A number of the company’s facilities in New York had been bombed earlier in the decade, and Boston’s Italian immigrant community was home to some of the most radical anarchists in the country. There had been 40 explosions in Boston and its environs in the past year alone. And when an employee reported that he had received a bomb threat against the Commercial Street tank, it lent weight to the company’s version of events.
The families of those killed and injured by the blast—mostly poor Irish and Italian laborers—contended that U.S.I.A. was at fault and should compensate them for their loss and suffering. The Massachusetts Superior Court appointed Colonel Hugh Ogden, a former military officer, to hold hearings on the matter. What was found was enough to drive one to drink.
The tank’s location was chosen because of its proximity to the wharf, but the company showed no concern for the safety of the people who lived and worked in the densely populated neighborhood around it. The man who oversaw construction of the tank, Arthur Jell, had no technical or mechanical training; he was unable to read a blueprint or to determine specifications that would make the steel in the tank safe. No engineers or architects were consulted, nor did an architect or engineer ever inspect the tank.
With Prohibition looming, the company was rushing to finish construction while there was still a legal demand for the alcoholic beverage use of its molasses. The strength of the tank was not tested before it was filled. To avoid costly interruptions, Jell ignored employees and others who had warned that the tank was unsound.
The tank had leaked or “wept” molasses consistently since its construction in 1915. U.S.I.A had ignored the warning signs, simply caulking or patching the leaks, and finally painting the tank brown in an effort to conceal them. It had long been emitting strange sounds and had vibrated like an enormous washing machine under the immense pressure of its contents. The rise in local temperature from 2°F to 41°F over the past two days assisted in the build up of pressure inside the tank.
According to engineers, hoop stress is greatest near the base of a filled, cylindrical tank. The failure here occurred at a manhole cover near the base of the tank, and it is possible that a fatigue crack there grew to criticality. The tank had only been filled to capacity eight times since it had been built, putting the walls under an intermittent and dangerous cyclical load.
After five-and-a-half years of legal wrangling, Ogden rendered his decision. There was no evidence that the tank had been sabotaged. Instead, he found a history of negligence and mismanagement by U.S.I.A. and ordered the company to pay $1,000,000 (about $7,000,000 in today’s money) in compensation to the victims.
Massachusetts and most other states responded to the verdict by passing laws to certify engineers and regulate construction. The molasses case marked the end of an era—big business now faced no government restrictions on its activities and consequences for its actions.
United States Industrial Alcohol never rebuilt the tank. The property became a yard for the Boston Elevated Railway (predecessor to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) and is currently the site of a city-owned baseball field.
[Note: The Massachusetts Historical Society has few significant research materials on the Molasses Flood. So I turned to microfiche of the newspapers of the day, plus an article written by MHS Director William M. Fowler, Jr., that appeared on a recent anniversary of the Flood, and an excellent account of the disaster, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, by Stephen Puleo.]