Flood Unlike Most 8/21/21

History with Richard Bleil

When I was young, my mother used to enjoy buying me books for Christmas. She would look for unusual titles and books based on reality rather than fiction. One of my favorites was called “Napoleon’s Glands”, a very interesting book on biohistory detection. Basically, modern scientists looked at famous figures of the past to speculate on the very real medical conditions that they may have suffered from based on their symptoms. Napoleon, because of his stature, was thought to suffer from a glandular problem (as suggested in the title) that also tends to give rise to “sour stomachs”, which would explain his penchant for having his hand in his coat. Edgar Allen Poe, another central figure in the book, was thought to have suffered from heavy metal poisoning giving rise to his dark writings.

One of the books she bought for me was called “Darkest Hours”, a collection of the world’s worst disasters. It had a passage for Pompeii, and the Hindenburg, and many others, always including statistics, dates and details for the story. One of the more unusual stories was of a Flood in Cambridge, North Boston on January 15, 1919. In the flood, 21 people died, about 150 were injured. At the peak of the flood, the waves were reported to be 25 feet high and traveled through the streets of Boston at 35 miles per hour.

Sounds a bit slow, don’t you think? I mean, you won’t outrun a 35 mph flood, but still, a bit slow, isn’t it?

As it turns out, the flood was of molasses. Yup, the great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. As it turns out, a storage tank of hot molasses (in January) containing 2.3 million gallons of the popular sticky delicious and highly viscous goo burst forth and the molasses flowed into the streets. As the bolts of the tank gave loose, a witness described the sound as being not dissimilar to that of a machine gun firing the dangerous shrapnel around the harbor area.

The molasses had been warmed to decrease its viscosity for transfer from the ship bringing it in to the storage vat. The weather around Boston that winter had been quite frigid, and yet on January 15, the cold weather had snapped giving rise to a balmy forty degrees Fahrenheit. The city was basically enjoying a day more akin to a refrigerator than the deep freeze it had been in recent days when the disaster occurred. Although I cannot find a reference telling the approximate temperature of the molasses prior to the disaster, I have seen it referred to as “hot” molasses, which would make sense and the viscosity would drop to being near that of water if it was sufficiently warmed. I doubt it was heated to the boiling point of water, but it was nonetheless hot.

The tank was apparently poorly constructed four years earlier and filled to capacity only a few times before that day. It’s been suggested that because of its poor construction, it may always have leaked. Because it was only a day before bitterly cold, the warming and influx of hot molasses may have finally caused stress fractures to give way completely leading to the final failure.

Many of the people caught in the tidal wave went from cool weather to hot molasses. Because it happened on the harbor, many victims were then swept off the docks into the bitterly cold Atlantic ocean. The shock of these temperature extremes likely contributed to many of the deaths. Because the fluid was also highly viscous, anybody finding themselves under the flood likely could not simply swim to the top, trapped instead in a fashion analogous to an insect trapped and mummified in amber so millions of years later jewelers can turn them into pendants for people to wear. Many people were also caught in several nearby buildings that were close enough to be destroyed or heavily damaged by the sticky sweet ooze.

The cleanup of the mess was declared complete half a year later, although the smell of molasses lingered for many years following. The company responsible (the Purity Distilling Company) eventually had to pay over a million dollars in damages and reparations, equivalent to roughly $16 million today. The area of Cambridge, by the way, is home to Harvard University, MIT, Boston University, Tufts University, Emerson University and more colleges and Universities than you can imagine. Harvard was one of the earliest universities established in the Colonies (since this pre-dates the Revolutionary War) founded in 1636. Even MIT was there, having been established in 1861. I’ll bet it was hard to study with the smell of molasses so heavy in the air. I wonder if they canceled classes?

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