A story that wants to be told of video I'd like to see: A 15 foot wall of molasses coming down the street

What moment in history would you like to see for yourself? That’s the topic of the week around ChicagoNow. How about seeing a 15 foot wall of molasses flowing down your street? That interests me.

It was 1919 Boston. A giant storage tank was filled to the brim with 26 million pounds of molasses. Some was from Cuba; most of it was destined for rum production in New England (rum is made in New England? There is so much I don’t know). It was winter, but when an unseasonably warm few days came along, the whole freeze/thaw dynamic kicked in and the thing burst, or more like exploded, in what was described as “a muffled roar.”

How do I know all of this? Thanks to an article  written to explain how it came to be that many industries are regulated by the government. Apparently in this case there were some bonehead decisions made by unqualified people, which make a case for some oversight. My interest, however, is trying to picture the event.

Once it blew, the 36 million pounds of molasses formed a wall of the gooey liquid that started out 2 stories high and 160 feet wide (although eyewitness accounts varied from 8 to 50 feet high – so we can’t be sure without the video we don’t have), moving at 35 mph. It destroyed everything in its path including elevated track supports and buildings.

It eventually dwindled down to only 2 to 3 feet deep. Most of the 21 people killed died of suffocation, unable to climb out of the quicksand-like molasses or unable to clear it from their breathing passages. There were 150 people injured. Trapped horses were euthanized. The neighborhood filled with Italian immigrants was decimated.

The cleanup effort was massive, obviously. Lawsuits followed, charges that it was due to an anarchist’s bomb were discredited in the courts, and damages were assessed the company responsible for the shoddy work on the tank.

The good side of having no video: no microphone-wielding reporters demanding that survivors reveal when they will have “closure” and forgive whoever is responsible. The bad side: I have to rely on the movie theater in my head which I fear is inadequate to fully reveal the scene.

Sidenote: There was a similar spill in 1872 in Memphis with a reported 8-foot high wall of molasses that trapped 12 people on its way to the Mississippi River. Clearly, if there is a molasses tank in your neighborhood, you might want to look into it.


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