Did your mother ever say to you, “You’re as slow as molasses in January”? Mine did, often. But at least once in January, molasses raced through the streets of Boston at thirty-five miles an hour. Here’s the story.
In 1919, in the North End of Boston, at the bottom of Copps Hill near the inner harbor, there was a huge steel and concrete storage tank. It towered over the warehouses, naval training center, firehouse, and nearby tenements. It was over five stories high and ninety feet in diameter and held 2,300,000 gallons of molasses.
If that seems like a lot of molasses for baked beans and gingerbread, remember that molasses is also used to make rum and ethyl alcohol, used in WWI to make munitions.
The seams of the tank leaked a little, just enough so the poor people who lived nearby could collect molasses. The Purity Distilling Company, who had built the tank, solved the leaking molasses problem. They painted the tank brown so the stains wouldn’t show.
That year, January 15th was warm. By lunchtime, the temperature was over 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Kids were walking home from school for lunch with their coats unbuttoned. One of those kids was Anthony di Stasio. He attended Michelangelo School with his sisters. Meanwhile, trucks and horse-drawn wagons passed by on busy Commercial Street. The men working for the city paving department next door to the molasses tank were eating the sandwiches they’d brought from home, enjoying the good weather.
Suddenly the ordinary bustle of the street was punctuated by loud bangs that sounded like machine-gun fire. Rivets were blasting out of the half inch steel plates that comprised the tank. There was a huge roar and the ground shook like an earthquake as the tank split and the its two halves blew apart.
One huge section blasted into the supports of the elevated railway across the street and the railway was a twisted mess. Nearby buildings were blown away or smashed into smithereens. A truck was blown clear into the harbor.
The molasses burst up like a volcano and then poured outwards, a sweet-smelling brown wall between eight and fifteen feet high moving thirty-five miles an hour covering, suffocating, drowning, destroying everything in its path. Buildings, wagons, horses, people all swallowed up.
It was impossible to run away from it and impossible to swim in it. In minutes, the wall of molasses had become a lake of molasses, covering several blocks.
Naval cadets, firemen (those who were not already dead or injured), policemen, and workers from the Red Cross were soon covered with the gooey mess while they struggled to find and pull victims from the sticky traps that held them.
The lawyer for United States Industrial Alcohol, who had bought up Purity Distilling, was on the scene almost as quickly as the first rescuers to express the company position: The tank must have been blown up by Italian anarchists. The company was not responsible.
Meanwhile, Anthony Di Stasio, the boy coming home from school for lunch had been picked up by the brown flood and carried on top of it as though he were a surfer. Then the surge of molasses dumped him on the ground and bounced him along the cobblestones. Rescuers took him to the relief hospital where his mother and sisters found him lying on the ground, covered with a sheet, beside those who had died. He opened his eyes when he heard their voices but he was unable to speak, his throat still clogged with molasses.
One of Anthony’s sisters, Maria, was less fortunate. A rescuer spotted her hair, reached into the depths of molasses and pulled her out. It was too late. She had already drowned. She was ten years old.
For four days and nights, the rescuers searched for victims buried by the flood and rubble. They found the last victim four days after the blast; glazed and brown, he barely looked human.
Altogether twenty-one people and fifteen horses died. One hundred and fifty people were injured.
Now, imagine the aftermath. Imagine the cellars filled to the brim with molasses. Imagine cleaning all those buildings and all the contents of all those buildings.
The city hosed the cobblestone streets with salt water, and the molasses changed to a frothy mess which too slowly oozed down into the harbor, which was brown for months.
The people of the North End sued United States Industrial Alcohol. The lawsuit dragged on for years. The company continued to claim that it was all the work of a foreign terrorist.
But the verdict was that though fermentation of the molasses and expansion caused by the warm weather might have been factors, ultimately the tank exploded because of shoddy construction and inadequate safety inspections.
The company settled out-of-court for $600,000. Even allowing for what that means in today’s dollars, a paltry few million, it seems little enough for the suffering and the lives lost that day.
They say that you could smell molasses in Boston’s North End for decades. But now kids play Little League baseball where the tank once stood, and hardly anyone reads the little plaque nearby.
Copyright by Margaret French
Ancestors.com: Boston, MA “Molasses Flood” Tank Explosion, Jan 1919, http://www3.gendisasters.com/massachusetts/2678/boston,-ma-%2526%2523039;molasses-flood%2526%2523039;-tank-explosion,-jan-1919
Edwards Park, “Eric Postpischil’s Molasses Disaster Pages, Smithsonian Article,” Eric Postpischil’s Domain, 14 June 2009, <http://edp.org/molpark.htm> accessed 1 March 2011.