Story by Marianne Salza
Historian Stephen Puleo presented his non-fiction book, “Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919,” during the April 13 Author Talk at Parlin Memorial Library. Puleo explained the social, political, and economic circumstances that contributed to the industrial accident. Twenty one people were killed, 150 were seriously injured, and 25 horses died in the disaster that resulted in massive property damage in the North End.
“It was a dramatic narrative,” said Puleo. “The tank was rushed to completion and leaked from day one. It was a landmark court case. All of the major issues the United States was dealing with in the early part of the 20th century touched this flood story in some way.”
The molasses tank, owned by US Industrial Alcohol, was erected in January 1916, when WWI was underway. Over 90% of the molasses stored in the Boston tank was processed into munitions. The raw, molasses substance was processed into the material that was refined into the industrial alcohol used in the production of explosives.
“This was a protected war industry during this time,” Puleo noted.
In “Dark Tide” Puleo mentioned the anarchist movement, when protestors were blowing up munitions plants and government buildings. The cornerstone of US Industrial Alcohol’s defense was that anarchists set a bomb in the tank; and that they should have been absolved of all liability. US Industrial Alcohol lawyers were unable to provide evidence of an explosive device.
Forty thousand people lived in the one-square-mile of inhabitable space in Boston’s North End. During this period, the community was 98% Italian. More than half of those Italian residents were not US citizens, and could not vote on the affairs in their own neighborhood.
“When the tank is sited on the Commercial Street waterfront – in one of the most congested neighborhoods in the entire country – there was barely a whisper from residents, even when the tank began to leak. For the most part, Italians kept their heads down and worked.”
The molasses tank was built in an area that included carpenter and blacksmith shops, a fire house, and stable for municipal horses. Rum, leather, and produce were exported from the Commercial Street wharf to Europe.
The receptacle did not require a permit, and its construction was hastened to be ready for a molasses steamer ship that was arriving from Cuba in January 1916.
Boston’s molasses tank was located where a softball field and bocce court now stand in Langone Park. It was 50-feet-tall, 90-feet-wide, and held 2.3 million gallons of molasses. Fifty-foot streams of leaking molasses immediately began pouring from the sub-standard steel tank.
“One of the lawyers for the plaintiff said the weight was the equivalent of 13,000 Model-T Ford automobiles: 26 million pounds,” exclaimed Puleo. “The court case is a fascinating read. It was a time when being under oath meant something. You get a lot of great, candid answers of ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘I did it.’”
“Dark Tide” examines the judge’s rule against US Industrial Alcohol in 1925, six years after the flood. It was the first ruling against a major US corporation.
“The entire relationship between government and business changed,” Puleo revealed. “The molasses flood case changed that relationship. There are more laws and regulations imposed by the government on businesses. Almost everything about building construction standards today is a result of the Boston molasses flood.”
There were 1,000 witnesses in the case, and 25,000 pages of testimonials.
The tank was declared for use after only being filled with six inches of water to test its durability. It would groan after molasses deliveries; and was repainted from a steel blue to a brown-red in an attempt to camouflage the leaks.
When the tank collapsed at 12:15pm on January 15, 1919, molasses gorged down, sending a 35-mile-an-hour wave of liquid along Commercial Street.
“It scoured Commercial Street, and rebound off of Copp’s Hill toward Atlantic Avenue,” Puleo detailed. “If Copp’s Hill had gone the other way, there’d have been thousands of deaths. It was a small tidal wave, picking up everything in its path – carts, people, and the overhead train trestle.”
Several firefighters were trapped for four hours under the firehouse during the flood, struggling to keep their heads above the molasses before inevitably smothering. Two 10-year-old children of Italian immigrants also perished during their school lunch breaks. They had been collecting firewood and scooping molasses that had pooled on the ground.
The first floors and basements of the homes and businesses across the street from the tank were completely flooded. It took six months to clear the molasses and rebuild the overhead train trestle that connected South Station to North Station. Firefighters pumped millions of gallons of salt water from Boston Harbor to clean the streets, washing most of the molasses back into the harbor.
“It was a surreal scene,” stressed Puleo about the devastation.
“Dark Tide,” published in 2003, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year; and is often referenced in high school and college curriculums locally and nation-wide. The Great Molasses Flood was one of the largest lawsuits in Massachusetts history, and is also a popular case study among judges and lawyers, as well as engineers.
Puleo is a professor at UMass Boston, and has taught history at Suffolk University. He was an award-winning newspaper reporter for the Boston Globe, American History Magazine, and Politico. Puleo, who was born in Everett, is the author of seven books.
Puleo’s presentation was supported by the Friends of Everett Public Libraries, the City of Everett, and the Everett Cultural Council. It was described as the most successful Author Talk in years by reference librarian, Kathleen Slipp.