Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass..."

Photo from the Boston Public Library

January 15, 1919 was an unseasonably warm day in Boston, rising past 40 degrees at noon after several days of frigid weather.  Consequently, there were a number of people outside--hanging laundry in the relatively fresh air, eating lunch, making deliveries in horse-drawn carts or, occasionally, in automobiles.  Thus, there were presumably a great deal more people outside than there had been on previous days when the rumbling first sounded.  It was only a matter of moments before the sound grew louder...and the day was distinguished by an event so bizarre, and so peculiarly tragic, that it deserved to be mentioned and remembered.

It's interesting also to remember that this was not a time too long-passed, or too rusticated to know real tragedy.  In 1919, there would have been a number of servicemen returned from the trenches of Europe who could identify the sound that broke through the commonplace afternoon bustle as similar to the quick, harsh sound of machine gun fire.  The man-power of the city had been significantly reduced by the outbreak of what was called the Spanish Flu, which was born and bred in Massachusetts a year or so earlier.  Honestly, it was a time far closer to our own than many would likely realized.  The economy was in a slump, people were ill and falling ill faster than doctors could keep up with demand, and though it was a time of declared peace, it was also a time of constant fear.

That machine-gun-like rattle soon grew to something described as the thunder of an oncoming train (remember, the T was already almost 40 years old), and then the wave came.  It started high up--nearly five stories in the air, higher than almost all the buildings in the area.  It came from a tank of molasses, a 50-foot tall metal tank, 90 feet in diameter, owned by U.S. Industrial Alcohol and operated by the Purity Distilling Company (molasses, you see, can be distilled to alcohol, which was used for munitions).  It was a wave of molasses, containing approximately 2,300,000 gallons of molasses, weighing an estimated 26,000,000 pounds and moving at 35 miles per hour through the North End of Boston.

Bostonians like to joke about the streets smelling of molasses on hot summer days, but realizing the colossal amount of force and weight that descended on the city when that tank burst is startling.  Buildings were flattened, then swept off their foundations.  The elevated railway lines of what would have been the A Line of the Green Line were warped like children's toys.  21 people were killed--some drowned, some were crushed. 

Photo from the Boston Globe

But what surprises me most of all about this story is what follows.  Because the explosion happened so close to the Navy Yards, the crew of the USS Nantucket was on the scene in minutes, and sailors and Red Cross nurses alike dove into the waist-deep sea of thick, sticky filth to rescue people trapped beneath the surface.  And because so many people showed up to help, the area was clean, with molasses removed from the cobblestones, wiped off the sides of buildings and washed off of cars and carriages.  An historian of the event (Stephen Puleo) estimated that it equaled roughly 87,000 man-hours, or ten years worth of work for a single individual.  The Harbor ran brown with molasses runoff until the late summer.
Photo from “The Great Molasses Flood,” by Deborah Kops

I wonder what those residents of the North End, those nurses and those volunteers with shovels and brooms and rags and coffee pots would think of us now.  I don't know if they'd be particularly impressed, but I think they deserve more credit in this story than the molasses.  They survived.  They restored their city, and, in the end, they forced a nation-wide regulations on industrial construction projects and engineer certification, after a class-action lawsuit brought by residents of the North End led to the revelation of the U.S. Industrial Alcohol's shoddy safety and construction practices.

So if you're in Boston, and happen to be in the North End, take a stroll over to Langone Park and see if you can smell the molasses that is said to still cling to the ground and the buildings around it.  Or read the plaque in Puopolo Park that recounts how "A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood".  But don't forget what came afterwards.  That might be the best part of all.


HorshamScouse said...

An amazing tale, beautifully told as always, Bridget

A historian's Dad said...

History...with a heart!