Touring Boston’s Waterfront for a Molasses Blast
A wave of molasses, bursting from an exploded steel tank at thirty-five miles per hour, smothered two city blocks in Boston’s North End on a warm January in 1919. The strange disaster killed twenty-one and injured 150; an elevated train track buckled, a train derailed, buildings collapsed and a truck flew into Boston Harbor.
Molasses, the sweetener of the day and a prime ingredient for rum and industrial alcohol, was stored in a massive but shoddily made tank on the waterfront of one of the Boston’s most crowded and impoverished immigrant neighborhoods. Built by the Purity Distilling Company, it apparently leaked so much that its owners painted it brown to mask the drip of molasses, which local residents collected and used in their tenements.
Poor neighborhoods are often slighted, but seeping molasses tanks in Boston’s Little Italy — a historic neighborhood that is also home to Paul Revere’s house and the Old North Church — must have rattled denizens, but not as much as the explosion and flood that devastated their neighborhood.
Today the site of the exploded tank is a waterfront park that includes a Little League field and a Bocci court. The 90th anniversary of the molasses disaster passed last winter, led by Stephen Puleo, who wrote a book with the thick title “Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919,” that makes him not only the city but the country’s resident molasses disaster expert.
All this is curious history on its own, with Puleo’s book as eager guide. In its review of Dark Tide, the New Yorker wrote: “narrated with gusto (and sometimes too much gusto)… but his enthusiasm for a little-known catastrophe is infectious.”
Example: “He lay sobbing in the darkness, tears streaming down his face, mixing with the molasses that stained his cheeks and threatened to drown him.”
Consider the molasses disaster in light of some fluffy pieces in the New York Times last month on Boston’s waterfront as an emerging weekend destination for the well-heeled, people who might go to a store in the Fort Point Channel area that offers “a selection of lighting made from plant materials like twigs and branches” where “a 20-inch-high ‘Thicket’ sconce is $295.”
Who wants tree lights when you can trace the history of a molasses explosion?
Similarly a visitor to London might bypass Notting Hill for the neighborhood near Tottenham Court Road that was flooded with beer in 1814 and imagine a creaking rookery devastated by an unnatural disaster. A court ruled the beer flood an “Act of God,” thus absolving the brewery of any responsibility, even though nine people drowned when a beer vat blew and triggered a chain reaction. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of “strong beer,” as the London Times reported at the time, knocked over two tenement houses and the brick wall of a pub.
Last month the New York Times compelled readers to fly to Boston and take a water taxi to a choice new boutique hotel on the edge of the North End. From that perch, you’d be able to see the waterfront park that was once industrial docks home to an ominous molasses tank.
The story included tidbits of popular history about Boston, even though the Times had to print a correction later, both about the age of Revere’s house and the date of his ride (1775, no ’76).
But we all know about Paul Revere. How many know that his neighborhood was power-washed with salt water to try and dissolve the crust of molasses in the aftermath of the explosion? Or that old-timers claim that in the humidity of a Boston summer, the area can still smell of molasses, competing with wafts of Cannoli?
Boston has no tenement museum like New York. All that the city offers is a little green plaque on Commercial Street, installed by the Bostonian Society at the entrance of a park on the waterfront. Ninety years ago, a steel tank of molasses was leaking nearby.
Photo by the Boston Herald photographer Leslie Jones, January 15, 1919. This photo is in the public domain in the US and taken from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BostonMolassesDisaster.jpg
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