Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Great Molasses Flood

There have been some strange events in history. From dancing and laughter "plagues" to the "Year Without a Summer", one that I always found interesting and a little bit amusing was the Boston molasses flood of 1919. The flood occurred at the Purity Distilling Company located in what is now Bostons North End. The 90 foot wide and 50 foot tall tank was built in 1915 and designed to hold up to two and a half million gallons of molasses. On January 15th, 1919 the tank exploded, with enough force to knock down the supports of the elevated railroad that ran nearby and throw a parked truck 150 feet into the harbor. Witnesses claimed hearing sounds like machine gun fire as rivets burst out of the tank. The explosion was just the beginning, it then unleashed a 10 foot wall of molasses traveling at 35 mph. It swept through he streets tearing buildings apart and sucking people into a viscous death. Dogs, horses and people were unable to escape the sticky mess, and attempts to move only made them sink deeper into the muck. Those who were caught in the outer ring of the molasses, while able to keep their heads above the fluid, were still unable to free themselves.

Aftermath of the Molasses Flood

Luckily the operator of the train was just able to stop
the train when he saw the track collapsing

Map of the location of the flood in modern Boston

The first to arrive to the scene were the men of the USS Nantucket a training ship which was docked nearby. They were soon followed by the Boston police, Army and Red Cross workers. A hospital tent was set up one the scene to take care of the wounded and provide food and water for the rescue workers. The thick molasses made rescue efforts slow and laborious and it would take 4 days of unrelenting work to rescue all of the inured and remove all of the dead. In total the flood claimed the lives of 21 people and at least 150 were hurt. The clean up would take all of the coming months and even by summer the harbor retained the brown tint of molasses

Photos of rescuers who waded though the sticky
flood to help survivors

Initially the company claimed that the flood was the result of a terrorist bombing by anarchists groups who targeted the tank because molasses was used to produce alcohol that was then used to produce munitions. However soon it was discovered that the tank had been leaking for some time and the company had hid this fact by painting it brown, the same color as the leaking molasses. The actual causes are still unknown. Some reports claim that due to the quick rise in temperature the previous day, from 2 degrees to almost 40 degrees, that the molasses had began to ferment creating gasses that generated the pressure needed to cause such an explosion. Others claim that the loading and unloading of the tank lead to a cyclical failure of the main cover where the explosion began. Whatever the actual cause the court eventually found the USIA responsible for the incident and 600,000 dollars was awarded to victims families. The flood is one of those stories that I would never believe had it not been so well documented and when I tell the story I often have to show people the Wikipedia to get them to believe that I'm not making the whole thing up. Its so hard to imagine molasses moving in the first place, let alone in a 10 foot wall at 35 mph.

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