Here’s a song by my man Richard Thompson (lyrics here), featuring his characteristic beauty and bitterness:
Those lines “in the dream I’m running/down a street of molasses/in the dream my feet gain no ground” seem an odd but effective image, like getting caught in sticky mud or tarpaper. But it also made me think of something that happened in Boston in 1919, an event I’d be surprised if Thompson has ever heard about. In fact, I’d even be surprised if most of you have ever heard of it:
The Boston Molasses Disaster, also known as the Great Molasses Flood and the Great Boston Molasses Tragedy, occurred on January 15, 1919, in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. A large molasses storage tank burst, and a wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph (56 km/h), killing 21 and injuring 150. The event has entered local folklore, and some residents claim that on hot summer days, the area still smells of molasses…
At about 12:30 in the afternoon near Keany Square, at 529 Commercial Street, a huge molasses tank 50 ft (15 m) tall, 90 ft (27 m) in diameter and containing as much as 2,300,000 US gal (8,700 m3) collapsed. Witnesses stated that as it collapsed, there was a loud rumbling sound, like a machine gun as the rivets shot out of the tank, and that the ground shook as if a train were passing by.
The collapse unleashed an immense wave of molasses between 8 and 15 ft (2.5 and 4.5 m) high, moving at 35 mph (56 km/h), and exerting a pressure of 2 ton/ft² (200 kPa). The molasses wave was of sufficient force to damage the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway’s Atlantic Avenue structure and tip a railroad car momentarily off the tracks. Nearby, buildings were swept off their foundations and crushed. Several blocks were flooded to a depth of 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm). As described by author Stephen Puleo:
“Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form — whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was… Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings — men and women — suffered likewise.”
The Boston Globe reported that people “were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet.” Others had debris hurled at them from the rush of sweet-smelling air. A truck was picked up and hurled into Boston Harbor. Approximately 150 were injured; 21 people and several horses were killed — some were crushed and drowned by the molasses. The wounded included people, horses, and dogs; coughing fits became one of the most common ailments after the initial blast.
It’s one of those things that initially sounds like a joke, but most definitely is not.