mr. mittens (akmed) wrote,
mr. mittens

forgotten disaster hidden in the air

on jan.15,1919 a hastily ,poorly constructed perpetually leaking tank containing 2,300,000 gallons of molasses collapsed, sending 15 foot waves of impossibly thick goo crashing through a heavily populated north end neighborhood. the cold winter air rendered the thick stickey syrup harder to remove than, well, warm thick sticky syrup. 21 died , over 150 were injured. an entire house was smashed into kindling. a portion of the ruptured tank was flung into the elevated subway, crumpling a support beam. an entire car of people were nearly pitched off the tracks into the flood.

the injuries sustained were truly gruesome and in an era without antibiotics. after having buildings fall on them, breaking bones and causing serious trauma, many were trapped ,pinned under debris and trying desperately to escape the vacuum of the flowing molasses trying to suck them under. rescuers crawled into death traps injecting victims periodically with morphine to stave off excruciating pain. when the tank collapsed, the area was filled with working class breadwinners. many who survived were permanently disabled. there was no social security and no unemployment insurance. there was no medicaid.

the tank held molasses waiting to be distilled into industrial alcohol which at the time was used to make dynamite and war munitions. the company that owned it blamed anarchist bombers even though there was absolutely no evidence of an explosion, no evidence of concussion associated with an explosion nor any parts of a bomb recovered. they had shrugged responsibility for a tank they knew was flawed for years. eventually they were found libel in an early class action type lawsuit- quite extraordinary in the american world of robber barons and not just a free market but a free wheeling market with little restrictions on business and little protection for workers and consumers.

apparently the area still smelled of molasses for decades afterwards.

"...take the subway to Park Street and walk northeast to a wonderful little byway called Cornhill, which pitched downward to Washington Street. You could smell Cornhill before you reached it because at its upper end was the Phoenix, a coffee-house marked by the aroma of freshly ground beans. The rich scent filled the streets around and lured customers by the score.

Along with the coffee smell was another, equally pervading. One could discern throughout much of downtown Boston, and especially around the North End, the unmistakable aroma of molasses.

As a boy, I never questioned that odor, so strong on hot days, so far-reaching when the wind came out of the east. It was simply part of Boston..."

-Edwards Park, “Eric Postpischil's Molasses Disaster Pages, Smithsonian Article,” Eric Postpischil's Domain, 15 June 2011, accessed 14 January 2012.

photo: boston public library

Puleo, Stephen, "Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919", Beacon Press, 2004

Edwards Park, "Without Warning, Molasses in January Surged Over Boston",Smithsonian 14 number 8 (November 1983), pages 213-230.

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