In 1919, there occurred an accident so strange and so devastating that, as I learned about it, I was stunned into silence for a few moments while I scratched my head and tried to figure out how the hell that could happen.
On the afternoon of January 15 in that year, the citizens of Boston’s North End were gong about their business when they felt a rumble, followed by a huge crash and then the machine-gun rattle of thousands of rivets as they began to pop.
It wasn’t an earthquake that was about to befall the neighbourhood but a tsunami, courtesy of the Purity Distilling Company.
A five-storey-high metal tank, measuring 50ft x 90ft had split open, releasing a wall of molasses. Patrolman Frank McManus was there to witness it. He called in the report from a police call box: “Send all available rescue vehicles and personnel immediately, there’s a wave of molasses coming down Commercial Street!” he screamed.
Officer McManus’s panic was justified because, quite frankly, the statistics are mind boggling: More than 7.5 million litres of sweet, sticky molasses, moving at roughly 55 kilometers an hour in a wave that was 7.5 metres high and 50 metres wide, engulfed the area.
Such was the force of the surge that rail freight cars were crushed, a fire station was ripped from its foundations and an elevated train was almost lifted from its track.
Running 90 metres down the street from the wrecked storage tank, a river of molasses trapped people, horses and dogs in its sticky grip.
The Boston Post captured the scene: ‘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 fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.’
The Great Boston Molasses Flood, as it became known, killed 21 people and injured 150. About half the victims were crushed by the wave, hit by debris or drowned in the syrup. The rest died from injuries and infections in the weeks that followed. We sometimes hear of people coming to a sticky end, but never could we imagine it to be be in the form of a syrupy tsunami.
I came across this intriguing episode in Bill Bryson’s great book One Summer: America, 1927. If you haven’t read Bryson’s book, I would recommend wholeheartedly that you do so. It is fascinating.
But back to the disaster. At the time, molasses was being used in the armaments industry. Distilled into industrial alcohol, it became a key component in the manufacture of bombs during World War One.
The massive storage tank at North End had been built in 1914. Even as it was first filled, the signs were ominous. According to witnesses, the metal seemed to groan from the mounting pressure inside. The amber fluid was seen to seep from the seam of the giant tub, and local residents collected the leaked syrup for their homes
Over time, things could only get worse. The unusually warm weather on January 15, 1919 proved the topping point, the pressure increased in the tank and the molasses burst forth with catastrophic results.
Eight-year-old Anthony di Stasio was one of those caught up in the flood. He had been carried along for several blocks by the deluge before smashing into a lamppost. His body was recovered from the quagmire and taken to a building being used to store the bodies of victims. A sheet was placed over his molasses-covered form. However, Anthony was merely unconscious.
Hours after being laid among the dead, he awoke to the sound of his mother’s voice. Anthony couldn’t speak because his mouth was full of molasses, but he did sit up and was soon comforted by his family. Ten-year-old Maria di Stasio wasn’t so fortunate. She died in the flood.
Three hundred people spent weeks cleaning the disaster area. Despite using salt water to wash the molasses away and sand to absorb it, Boston harbour remained syrupy brown all through the summer. But that wasn’t the half of it . . . the molasses had spread further afield, thanks to rescue workers and sightseers tramping the syrup throughout the city. Subway station platforms, train seats and even telephone handsets were left sticky from the syrup.
Decades after the event, it was said that the sweet smell of molasses still hung in the air on hot summer days around Boston’s North End.
The Great Molasses Flood was an extraordinary event. It’s quirky nature tends to obscure the terrible tragedy that it actually was. But what is even more strange than the disaster itself, is that it could be so quickly lost to popular culture.
If an event as downright bizarre as this can be forgotten by the majority of people, what hope is there for our own claims to posterity.