Little Bits of History

January 15

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 15, 2017

1919: Boston, Massachusetts is the site of the Great Molasses Flood. The Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol Company, was located at 529 Commercial Street in Boston’s North End. They used large tanks (50 feet tall and 240 feet in circumference) which held as much as 2.3 million gallons of molasses. Molasses can be fermented to produce rum and ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages. It is also a major part of producing ammunition. Winter in Boston is cold and it had been freezing for quite some time. However, on this date, the temperature rose rapidly to over ⁰F 40 and around 12.30 PM the fermenting goo suddenly expanded enough to start popping the rivets on the vat. There was a preceding growl, a noise like a thunderclap, and then pops like a machine-gun being fired as the rivets popped.

With about 2.3 million gallons of molasses now free, a wave reached a peak of 25 feet and moved as fast as 35 mph as it left the building. The Boston Elevated Railway at Atlantic Avenue had the girders buckled by the force of the wave and a train was momentarily tipped off the tracks. Many of the nearby buildings were wrenched from their foundations and crushed under the weight of the advancing molasses. The tide moved on and for several blocks, all open spaces were flooded with 2-3 feet of the sticky mess. Some people were picked up and swept along on the wave. Some were hurled into the air. Others were pelted with debris as it was moved by air currents in advance of the wave itself. The force was strong enough to pick up a truck and throw it into Boston Harbor.

There were about 150 people injured and 21 were killed. The dead ranged in ages from 10 to 76 with six of the dead from the North End Paving Yard. Many animals were also injured and several horses, still used for transportation, were killed. Some of the deaths were by crushing under the weight of the substance; some drowned in the sticky mess. In the days that followed, many of those near the wave were victims of coughing fits. The first to arrive on the scene were 16 cadets from the USS Nantucket, a training ship at the Massachusetts Nautical School. Under the leadership of Lt. Com. Copeland, the cadets ran to help and were tasked with keeping the curious out of the way of rescue workers. They also entered into the knee-deep goo to help where needed. The viscosity of the molasses made rescue efforts even more difficult.

Cleanup was horrific and more than 300 people worked for weeks on the initial cleaning. First salt water from fireboats was sprayed over the molasses and then sand was used to try to absorb the mess. It was washed into the harbor which remained brown until summer. While this initial work cleared the streets, it took much longer for the rest of Boston to recover. People had tracked the sticky mess over a much larger area – streetcars, subway platforms, pay telephone handsets, homes throughout the region. All over Boston, this sticky substance had to be cleaned and it was said that for years afterwards, on hot days, the city still smelled sickly sweet.

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. – Boston Post

Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings‍—‌men and women‍—‌suffered likewise. – Boston Post

Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. – an article in Smithsonian

He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him. – an article in Smithsonian

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