Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Slow as Molasses in January

Did you ever really consider molasses?  As you add it to your pumpkin pie and gingerbread this year, imagine two million gallons of it washing through your neighborhood, destroying everything in its path.  Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo is the story of how a molasses storage tank burst and inundated the North End of Boston in 1919.

Molasses was used to make "industrial alcohol" which was in great demand during World War I. In 1915 the US Industrial Alcohol company rushed to build a massive tank on the Boston waterfront. Almost immediately, there were questions about the integrity of the tank's construction, and molasses leaked from its seams from the first moment it was filled.

In January, 1919, an enormous load of molasses was pumped into the tank.  The molasses from the ship was warmer than the molasses in the tank.  Overnight, the weather warmed dramatically and the molasses was heard making ominous sounds inside the tank.  Molasses isn't an inert substance.  It will ferment and create gasses. Around noon, the tank burst, and the molasses wave destroyed everything in its path.  Buildings were knocked off their foundations, the elevated railway crumpled, and people and animals in the path of the flood were killed.  Some of them drowned in molasses.  Others were rescued, but died later, of traumatic injuries. The survivors suffered PTSD and never fully recovered from their physical injuries.

The nature of molasses made this disaster particularly horrible.  It filled basements, it filled the mouths and noses of those caught in the flood,  it drained continuously from the hair and clothes of the victims, so that the floor of the hospital emergency room because so clogged with molasses, they couldn't push the stretchers.  It got into wounds and caused devastating infections.  Victims complained of terrible thirst--probably because molasses's density interfered with their electrolyte balance.  When I was a nurse, we used to mix enemas out of milk and molasses (the "brown cow") and it worked like a charm for our most constipated patients, but to be completely coated in it for hours must have had a strange affect on the body chemistry.

The book is divided into three parts. First is a history of the construction of the tank, and the long history of molasses as an important part of the New England economy.  It was one corner of the "triangle trade," the other two being slaves and rum.  Puleo also introduces some of the people who suspected that the tank was unsafe, and some of the people who were killed by it.  The second part of the book describes the disaster itself.  The third is about the resulting lawsuit, which is important, as it had implications for big business being held responsible for their negligence.  The book is a fast and fascinating read, and also very informative about the history and political climate of the time. Read it if you want to be outraged by big business' disregard for the safety of the communities they affect.

It's a bit bizarre that there are two children's books about the flood, (The Great Molasses Flood by Beth Brust and  Molasses Flood by Blair Lent) both of which seem to retell the story as a jolly adventure.  In the real disaster, two children, who had been in the habit of collecting the dripping molasses from the tank and bringing it home to their families, were crushed and suffocated to death.


  1. I once dropped a shoo-fly pie as I was putting into the oven, covering myself and my kitchen with molasses, although after reading this, it was a minute amount in comparison. It did stain my shoes though.

  2. Considering how molasses smells in a bottle, I cannot fathom a whole city full of it. What a disaster!

  3. I've heard that on really hot summer days, you can still smell molasses in that area of Boston. I don't know if it's true or not, and I'm not sure I'd care to find out first-hand.

    1. I wouldn't be surprised if traces of it were still lingering in some basements.