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After 100 Years, A Look Back At Boston's Great Molasses Flood Of 1919


In Boston on January 15, 1919, a tank of molasses burst, releasing a thick, sugary tsunami that killed 21 people and injured 150. On its centennial, reporter Julia Press looks back at the accident's history and impact.

STEPHEN PULEO: We're in Boston's North End on Hanover Street, which is, I would say, the main street in the North End for activity, for businesses, for restaurants.

JULIA PRESS, BYLINE: Stephen Puleo is the author of "Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919." We weave through narrow streets to the top of Copp's Hill for a panoramic view of the spot where a 50-foot-tall steel tank once stood.

PULEO: So do you want to head down?

PRESS: Let's do it, yes.

Baseball fields now line Boston Harbor. But a hundred years ago, you'd find a bustling port, a municipal yard and an elevated railway.

PULEO: This was one of the busiest commercial sites in all of Boston.

PRESS: The tank was used to store molasses, which came on ships from the Caribbean, until it could be transported to a nearby distillery where it was expected to become rum in the last days before Prohibition. Though only a few years old at the time of the flood, the tank showed signs of instability.

PULEO: There were often comments made by people around the vicinity that this tank would shudder and groan every time it was full. And it leaked from Day 1. It was very customary for children of the North End to go and collect molasses with pails.

PRESS: When the tank burst, it unleashed a 30-foot-high wave of 2.3 million gallons of molasses that moved 35 mph down Commercial Street.


HARRY HOWE: We saw this big cloud of brown dust and dirt and a slight noise.

PRESS: Harry Howe was on leave from the Navy for the weekend. He and other sailors were some of the first people on the scene, as he recalled in a 1981 interview with the Stoneham Public Library.


HOWE: And there was an arm sticking out from underneath the wheel of a truck. So two of us got a hold of his arm. And unfortunately, we pulled his arm off.

PRESS: Shortly after the flood, 119 plaintiffs took up a civil lawsuit against U.S. Industrial Alcohol, the tank's owner. The case was historic in many ways.

PULEO: The first case in which expert witnesses were called to a great extent - engineers, metallurgists, architects, technical people.

PRESS: Stephen Puleo says it set the stage for future class-action lawsuits and completely changed the relationship between business and government.

PULEO: That architects need to show their work, that engineers need to sign and seal their plans, that building inspectors need to come out and look at projects - all of that comes about as a result of the great Boston molasses flood case.

PRESS: For a short time, the story was all anyone could talk about.

PULEO: Boston has seven daily newspapers at the time. And the molasses flood is so big that it knocks off the front page the Prohibition Amendment, which essentially passes the night of the molasses flood, and it knocks the Versailles peace talks, the talks that ended World War I, off the front page.

PRESS: Even today, the flood lives in neighborhood folklore. Just ask Nick LaBonte from Polcari’s Coffee.

NICK LABONTE: Supposedly, you can still smell the molasses when it gets hot enough.

PRESS: But today molasses is not a common sight on the Boston waterfront. It had long been a major part of the city's industry, from the key ingredient in colonial baked beans to World War I munitions. But the tank's destruction brought an end to 300 years of tradition.

For NPR News, I'm Julia Press. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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