30 June 2008

The Boston Molasses Disaster

I have been to Boston once in my life; it was one of the stops in my "visiting colleges" trip of 1998. While doing some research last week, I was suddenly reminded of one of the strangest stories I've ever heard – the one and only thing I remember from the bus tour I was made to go on while there – the Boston Molasses Disaster.

Nearly 90 years ago – ironically, as I'll explain, one day before the Prohibition – a 50 foot-tall molasses tank exploded, sending 2.3 million gallons of the stuff down the streets of Boston. Imagine a 15 foot-high wave of molasses coming at you at 35 miles per hour. It flooded a few blocks up to waist level, crushed and swept away buildings, ultimately killed 21 people, injured 150 and killed 20 horses (some of the horses had to be shot because of how deep into the molasses they were, unable to move). Here is a shot of the NYTimes headline from the next day:

NYTimes headline, 16 January 1919

Apparently there were some structural problems with the tank, and it had been painted brown to camouflage the molasses leaking out. The irony I referenced earlier: this molasses was being fermented to make alcohol. Another theory is that the fermentation increased the pressure inside the tank, causing it to burst. Can you imagine how terrifying this must have been?
Envision a disaster scene with smashed buildings, overturned vehicles, drowned and crushed victims, and terrified survivors running away covered in molasses. Like the modern-day disasters with which we are unfortunately familiar, there was chaos, terror, buildings in ruins, victims to be dug out, trapped survivors to be rescued, rescue workers among the victims, and anguished families rushing to relief centers to find their relatives. It was like any horrible disaster scene, with the addition that everything was covered in smelly sticky brown molasses. [source]
In the end, it took 87,000 man hours to clean up the mess, and Boston Harbor ran brown for 6 months. Apparently all there is to mark the spot is a tiny plaque by a recreational complex. Why this isn't more widely known, I don't know. I was so fascinated by all the details just now that I kept interrupting a meeting to talk about it (sorry Eric).

Soon to be x-posted to House of Naked.
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