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January 15, 1919: Slow as Molasses

Posted January 16, 2007 2:33 PM by Steve Melito

Yesterday was the 88th anniversary of the "Boston Molasses Disaster", an industrial accident which destroyed part of the city's historic North End. On January 15, 1919, the rivets on a tank of molasses failed, unleashing 2,300,000 gallons of the sticky sweetener in an 8 to 15-ft. high wave that moved at a speed of 35 mph and exerted a pressure of 2 tons/sq. ft. The "Great Molasses Flood", as the event is sometimes known, exerted enough force to topple the girders of the Boston Elevated Railway and lift a train off its tracks. Buildings were crushed or loosed from their foundations. A truck was hurled from Commercial Street into nearby Boston Harbor. "Horses," reported The Boston Globe, "were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet", or asphixiated from the sickly sweet odor. By the time that 116 sailors from the U.S.S. Nantucket arrived to rescue the survivors, the "Great Boston Molasses Tragedy" had claimed the first of 150 victims. Rescuers worked tirelessly through the night, but 133 man-months were required to clean the North End's cobblestone streets. Boston Harbor ran brown until summer.

Molasses was America's standard sweetener until the invention of high fructose corn syrup (HFCF) by Japanese researchers in the 1970s. Molasses, which can be fermented, was also used in the production of munitions and liquor. Some historians now speculate that the tank's owner, the Purity Distilling Company, had overused the vessel in order to fulfill World War I military contracts or quench America's pre-Prohibition thirst. At the time, local authorities blamed bomb-throwing anarchists. The years that followed the "Boston Molasses Disaster" witnessed the 18th Amendment, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the end of an official investigation. Arthur Jell, the man who oversaw construction of the molasses tank, emerged as the disaster's villain. According to testimony, Jell failed to perform basic leak tests and ordered the inside of the tank to be painted brown to hide any damage. Jell's defenders note that a buildup of carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fermentation, could have joined with rapidly-rising air temperatures to cause a disastrous increase in pressure. Indeed, records indicate that the air temperature in Boston rose from 2 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit from January 14 to January 15, 1919.

Editor's Note: Thanks to the ubiquitous stilljester for suggesting this story.

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#1

Re: January 15, 1919: Slow as Molasses

01/16/2007 2:52 PM

Thanks!!!

My bet is the tank itself was in poor shape and without proper ventilation. When the temperature swung 40 degrees the excess pressure caused the tank to burst. Having been to this area in Boston several times its hard to imagine molasses several feet deep cascading through the streets. I guess it's just another colorfully chapter in Boston's rich history - there must be something about turning that harbor water brown they just can't get enough of.

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#3
In reply to #1

Re: January 15, 1919: Slow as Molasses

01/17/2007 3:58 AM

Molasses as a sweetener for tea? Yuk!

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#2

Re: January 15, 1919: Slow as Molasses

01/17/2007 3:39 AM

Have you been reading PlbMak's post about Christmas Treacle?

wikipedia have a good link

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Anonymous Poster
#4

Re: January 15, 1919: Slow as Molasses

01/23/2007 8:06 PM

I would hazard a guess that the real culprit was the quality of the steel used in the vessel. The state of testing of steel in that period was much less than today. Remember, the Titanic went down only a few years earlier. The strength of steel in the Titanic's hull has been demonstrated from analysis of hull samples to have been the underlying reason the hull failed when it hit the iceberg. Likely the cold temperature in January resulted in the failure of the tank.

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#5
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Re: January 15, 1919: Slow as Molasses

01/24/2007 8:21 AM

Certainly a good theory as well. Steel sure has come a long way in 100 years....

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