Weird Wednesdays: Caught in the Molasses Slide

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Twenty one people were killed on Commercial Street in the North End when a tank of molasses ruptured and exploded. An eight foot wave of the syrupy brown liquid moved down Commercial Street at a speed of 35mph. Wreckage of the collapsed tank visible in background, center, next to light colored warehouse. Elevated railway structure visible at far left and the North End Park bathing beach to the far right.(Flickr/Creative Commons)

Spring weather in February may be a reprieve to those of us who’ve spent hours chipping out our cars from half-foot layers of ice (Protip: Chucking your coffee in exasperation on your frozen door just adds a layer of frozen coffee to your car exterior. I learned that the hard way.) Warmer winter temperatures, however, aren’t just another grim symptom of global climate change; it’s also the source of one of nearly two dozen deaths, and deaths in the most horrifying, sticky way.

100 years ago in 1919, mid-January, Boston was experiencing a pleasantly warm day for the usually brutal winter season. A balmy 40 degrees (I can hear the Californians reading this shiver) sent many of the downtown workers out for a stroll, embracing temperatures that, not a week before, had been subfreezing.

Looming over the bustling, yet peaceful North End neighborhood was a 50-foot tall tankard of molasses— 2.3 million gallons contained by stainless steel, shipped from the Caribbean for the United States Industrial Alcohol company, waiting to be distilled into alcohol for WWI weaponry and rum.

What the company didn’t know (or did know, and didn’t care about) was that the spike in temperatures spelled trouble. A combination of fermentation gases building up in the poorly-stored molasses, a shoddy tank and weakened steel from the sudden shrinking and expansion brought about by the temperature change, would soon let 26 million gallons of thick, suffocating molasses loose.

At noon, a group of firemen playing cards downstream of the tank suddenly heard a creaking noise. The firemen watched in horror as the tank panels peeled back, and a monstrous black ooze began to flood forth. They cried out, but it was too late; the molasses flooded out of the tank in 15-foot waves, engulfing everything in its path.

Molasses is dense stuff, thanks to all of the sugars and minerals contained therein. In fact, it’s the same density as coal– 1.4 g/ml. The wave of sticky liquid was pretty much a rockslide in the neighborhood.

The flood was indiscriminate. Moving at 35 mph and reaching 25 feet at its peak, it ripped an elevated railway right from its foundation. It leveled buildings and flooded streets by a good two to three feet. The Boston Globe described the scene afterwards:

“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.”

Men, women, dogs, cats and horses perished in the flood, drowning in an ooze they were unable to escape, or crushed by the debris, with several basements collapsing on their inhabitants. North End was the home to many Irish and Italian families living in crowded apartments, which added to the devastation.

Over 100 people were injured, with more developing coughing fits and illness from inhaled molasses. The youngest killed was a 10-year-old child, Maria Di Stasio, on her way home from school; the oldest, a messenger named Michael Sinnott. Some of the bodies were swept into the nearby river. Others couldn’t be identified for weeks, as the temperatures dropped once again and their bodies were trapped in the molasses, like insects in amber.

Immediately after the initial flood, students from the local maritime academy, as well as the Navy and the Red Cross rushed over to help the survivors. The foot traffic spread the molasses throughout Boston, coating everything from subways to telephone poles, causing Boston to smell sickly-sweet for decades afterwards and leaving the streets of North End tacky with molasses and rum residue for years.

The United States Industrial Company tried to skirt the blame, pinning the disaster on anarchists before admitting to their own shoddy coverup and construction in a lawsuit filed by the victims’ families. The suit, the first of its kind for Massachusetts, netted the families about half a million dollars (or, about $9 million when adjusted for inflation.)

The disaster led to major changes in how companies were allowed to construct, including the requirement for a civil engineer and a licensed architect. And, I’m sure, many a Bostonian could never take a tot of Captain Morgan’s again.

Though this event is definitely weird, it’s also tragic. Dying by molasses is not a very pleasant way to go. The event hit its 100th anniversary this year, with a ceremony at the neighborhood where it occurred.

So, when you have a moment, thank your lucky stars that we live in such a (relatively) safe time. Enjoy the warm weather and remember those who perished. If you happen to be near a giant tankard of syrup and hear it rumble—run. And, of course, stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.

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