Tom Sullivan here, just letting you know that if this appears under my byline, it’s because the tech gremlins in Bob Jones access to SU are acting up and I’m posting this for him. The following is 100% from our illustrious encyclopedic compatriot Robert C. Jones! …
This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans. The ADDITIONAL INFORMATION section of this essay contains material found during research. It is not always closely related to the main subject of the essay, but is thought to be interesting.
A recreation area resides in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. It includes baseball fields, slides, swings and even three Bocce courts. It is a place for persons to enjoy themselves. The area was not, however, always a pleasant place to be. In early 1919, persons there experienced a disastrous event.
To many British, it’s known as Treacle. To most Americans, it’s molasses. It is a dark, viscous, strong-flavored, honey-like substance made by processing cane or beet sugar. Its viscosity accounts for the slowness with which it pours from containers. It also provides the origin of the popular saying that something or someone is “as slow as molasses in January.”
In addition to being used for its flavor and sweetness, molasses is also used in the production of alcoholic beverages, munitions and ethanol. The Purity Distilling Company used it to produce the latter.
In the North End neighborhood, the company owned a large storage tank. It was 52 feet tall, 90 feet in diameter and had a storage capacity of 2.3 million U.S. gallons. A full load of molasses was estimated to weigh 26 million pounds.
Ships from Cuba brought molasses. The storage tank was located only about 200 feet from Boston Harbor, and that facilitated the transfer of Molasses from ships to the tank. Nearby railroad tracks provided ready means for moving the molasses from the tank to other locations.
A shipload of molasses was due to arrive a few days after the tank’s construction had been completed in December of 1915, so the structure had not been tested.
On January 15, 1919, the temperature had risen from a below-freezing temperature of 2 degrees Fahrenheit to an above-freezing temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That might have increased pressure within the tank.
Just after noon, the tank, loaded with molasses, burst. It was on this January day that molasses became directly involved in an event that not only resulted in a necessary application of forensic engineering to determine the causes and legal responsibilities for the bursting of the storage tank, but it also proved that the implied slowness of “molasses in January” was not applicable in all cases.
When it was filled with molasses, the viscous fluid leaked and ran down the sides of the tank. The leaks were so obvious that nearby neighbors filled containers with escaping goo for home use. Children rolled the ends of sticks against the leaking molasses to make sweet suckers. Reportedly, to hide the leaks, the tank was painted brown. In addition to the obvious leaks, rumbling noises from inside the tank were being noticed and reported.
When it burst, the storage tank was only three years old. It had been constructed of seven vertical rows of sheets of steel. The sheets were arranged in a circle with their edges overlapping. The overlapping areas were held together by rivets, and the bottom edges were set in concrete.
The sudden deformation of the tank walls, as reported by witnesses, was accompanied by a tremendous cacophony of crashes, roars, rumbles, growls, bangs and the sharp cracks of rivets being shot outwardly like bullets as the tank walls were abruptly forced outwardly and struck objects including the ground. With no tank to restrain it, a wave of molasses raced away from its previous enclosure. Reports of the wave’s height varied, but the actual height would have generally diminished as the wave spread from its original height while within the tank. Based on the damage it had caused, the width of the wave was determined to have reached 160 feet.
Estimates of the speed of the wave also varied, but it might have challenged the top speed of a human runner. A human sprint record found on the internet was less than 30 miles per hour. Having a terrifying specter of a huge wall of molasses bearing down upon one, however, might have inspired a new, unrecorded, human sprint record.
Adults and children were swept up and pitched helter skelter. By the time the flood subsided, 21 persons had been killed, and some 150 were reported to have been injured.
The wave itself was not the only impressive sight. Buildings within reach of the wave’s force were relocated and basements flooded with molasses. Much of the latter was pumped out by the fire department.
A portion of the Boston Elevated Railway that passed through the area, and that was to have provided means for moving molasses from the tank, was damaged. Poles supporting wires carrying electric current were toppled, dropping the wires into the molasses. A truck was pitched into Boston Harbor, and a small boat was found to have been driven through a wooden fence.
While being pinned by the wave of molasses against the shed wall of a trolley company with his feet a good distance above the shed floor, a railroad clerk had an experience capable of supplying enough material for a lifetime of nightmares while he helplessly watched a nearby horse drown in the sticky goo. At destroyed city stables, police shot trapped, injured horses.
The ship USS Nantucket was docked near the destroyed area, and its crew of 116 were quick to respond to the catastrophe. They were followed by Boston police, Red Cross workers and U.S. Army personnel. . Rescue and body retrieval efforts continued for four days, but the last body wasn’t recovered for nearly four months.
Thousands of gallons of molasses were pumped from basements by the fire department. In some locations, as the molasses hardened, saws and chisels had to be used to remove it.
That the flood scene was close to the harbor was fortunate. Its water was used to flush molasses from streets. So much was flushed that the harbor enjoyed a brown tint for some time.
Estimates of the time spent completing the entire clean-up ran to some 87,000 man-hours. As if the mess caused by molasses in the flooded area wasn’t enough, molasses was carried about the city of Boston on the shoes, clothes and fingers of workers, residents and sightseers. It made public telephones sticky and sitting on a streetcar seat almost a permanent experience.
An investigation revealed that no plans for the structure had been approved and that the completed structure itself had never been tested, for example, by filling it with water, which weighed only about half as much as did molasses anyway. Reportedly, the metal used in the construction was but half the thickness it should have been. It also lacked manganese, thus making the metal more brittle.
Local residents brought a class-action lawsuit against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA), which had purchased Purity Distilling in 1917. ASIA ultimately paid $10.7 million in today’s dollars in out-of-court settlements.
A positive result of the catastrophe was that Boston leaders began requiring that construction projects be approved by an engineer or architect and filed with the city building department. This positive action was subsequently adopted throughout the country.
Although the Boston flood happened nearly a century ago, if the temperature and humidity are just right, there are still those who claim to detect a fragrance that bears a suspicious resemblance to that of molasses.
To commemorate the molasses flood, the Bostonian Society installed a plaque at the entrance to what is now Puopolo Park. It bears the following words:
Boston Molasses Flood
On January 15, 1919, a molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. Structural defects in the tank combined with unseasonably warm temperatures contributed to the disaster.
During the years of Prohibition (1930-1933), in the United States, molasses bore an adversarial relationship with bootlegging and organized crime. Rum was a primary base for the production of illegal rum.
Not very far from the storage tank were the homes of Paul Revere and Thomas Hutchinson, the latter having been a colonial governor. The area also included homes, shops and freight sheds of a trolley company.
Bocce is an ancient game played on an elongate court upon which balls are thrown or rolled underhand in an attempt to place them as close as possible to a smaller ball called a jack, boccino or pallino.