The Great Molasses Flood

The Great Molasses Flood: Boston, 1919Boston, 1919

by Deborah Kops

Babe Ruth had just helped the Red Sox win the world series.  World War I had ended the previous November. The battle against Spanish Influenza was over and the schools had reopened.  Soda fountains had reopened, people were out on the streets and it seemed as though life might just finally be returning to normal.

In the North End, between the elevated railroad tracks and the Paving Yard, stood a huge steel tank.  It dominated the skyline.  In mid-January it had received another shipment and was now full with 2,319,525 gallons of molasses.  That weighed as much as 13,000 Ford cars – a sizable weight.  During the war the molasses had been made into alcohol that was used for making ammunition.  Now it was being distilled into rum by the company that owned the tank, the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA).

January 1919 was a time of change.  The troops would be coming home and efforts were being made to make that as soon as possible.  Only one more state was needed to ratify a constitutional amendment for Prohibition to begin. Commercial Street was a busy place. Business was was bustling in and out of the North End.  Passengers made there way between North and South Station.  Firemen worked in the firehouse.  The fireboat was there.  It was laundry day, and being surprisingly warm on the 15th, many lines were full. The North End Park was nearby.  People of all ages were out enjoying the unseasonable warmth.   Children snuck in and around the tracks collecting what wood they could find to use at home to keep warm and to cook.    When they passed by the tank they’d  scrape off some of the sticky goo that oozed from between the seams.  It wasn’t like candy, but it was sweet enough.

The day was off to a great start.  Around noon folks heard a devastating blast.  The tank split open and  a wave of thick brown glue barreled through the North End, sweeping up or wiping out everything in its path.  The force of the molasses swept buildings off their foundations, slammed people against trestles and curbs or trapped them for long hours under debris and sludge.  Not everyone was lucky enough to escape the tide as it chased them down.  The whole area was awash with the sticky, brown goo that soon turned to fetid fermenting ooze- the devastation great.

How had it happened?  Was it a bomb?  Had Anarchists, unhappy with the outcome of the war, planned this attack?  Boston had been bombed a couple years before.  Was it an accident?  How would city clean-up and rebuild?   Would they?   How could the loss of businesses, livelihoods, homes and lives be repaid?

From this event of devastation and disaster nearly 100 years ago there are many lessons to be learned and many parallels to be drawn between similar happenings today.  I knew nothing of the molasses flood until a read of this book.  Once aware, I began noticing references to it everywhere.  You’ll be interested to read of the people affected by this blast – their lives were never the same and were never better.  This point in our history is a pivotal moment.  We should be looking to see how can we use this information to ensure the same does not happen to people caught in disasters in the present.   I don’t think we have yet.  Read The Great Molasses Flood and see what you think.  UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, is credited with a quote:  “If you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, when are you going to have the time to do it right again?”  I know I can’t stop a deluge of molasses, but thoughtfulness always matters, big or small.  There aren’t many do-overs in life.