Great Molasses Flood Remembered

JANUARY 2004
- Josephine Moschella Was There - January is the 84th anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919,
which claimed 21 lives and flattened several blocks in Boston's North
End.

From time-to-time articles have
been written on this event - at times given a somewhat whimsical
quality with just the thought of a molasses flood drawing on one's
imagination.

But for men, women and
animals trapped in this nightmarish glob, it must have been a horrible
experience, to say nothing of those poor souls who perished under the
sea of molasses.

In setting the
scene for this one-of-a-kind flood, we must look back to 1919 when
molasses was America's primary sweetener. It was used to make all types
of cookies, cakes, bread, and especially rum. And Boston was considered
to be the distilling capitol of the United States. There were many
molasses factories, warehouses and storage tanks lining the shores of
our state's capitol city.

On the
waterside of Boston's Commercial Street stood a giant two and a half
million-gallon storage tank built four years before by the Purity
Distilling Company. The tank had curved steel sides set into a concrete
base and stood over 50 feet tall.

In
early January, there had been several days of sub-freezing weather but
by January 15 the weather had turned mild and had reached a balmy 45
degrees.

At about 12:30 p.m. that
day, with a sound described as a muffled roar, rivets popped like
machine-gun fire, the giant tank split and a wet brown hell broke
loose. An estimated 14,000 tons of the thick, sticky fluid ran wild, 15
feet high, wiping out everything that stood in its way. The wave moved
at an estimated 35 miles per hour.

Men,
women, children and animals, especially horses hitched to wagons, were
caught and hurled in the air or dashed against buildings. An elevated
train had barely gone by when the track snapped and the tracks sagged
almost to street level.

The wave
demolished buildings, literally ripping them off their foundations. It
upended vehicles and buried horses. People tried to outrun the torrent,
but were overtaken and drowned where they fell. Fifteen were found dead
before the sun went down that night and six other bodies were recovered
later.

The next day, firefighters
tackled the mess with fire hoses, using salt water to wash off
buildings and wreckage and flush down the gutters. The salt water
proved to be much more effective in cutting through the molasses than
fresh water. It was months before the devastated area was cleaned up.

For
many years, the smell of molasses permeated the air on certain days.
The molasses had soaked into the support beams of wooden buildings and
on hot days, as recently as the 60s, the scent would float out,
somewhat of a surprise to North End newcomers.

Josephine Moschella Remembers

Any of our members who are still alive and lived in the North End at that time were young children in 1919.

One
such member, Josephine Moschella, who later worked for the City of
Boston, is currently age 93. She was age nine at the time and lived on
Salutation Avenue, "a little alleyway" not far from the explosion.

"We
heard about an explosion during school but I didn't know that it was
serious till I was on my way home and saw the ambulances and fire
apparatus. I wanted to go down to Commercial Street because the kids
said a tank had blown up," Josephine recalled.

"My
mother pulled me into the house and told me it was molasses. The
schools closed for a week and I was not allowed to leave my street.
Some of the older kids had been down to the explosion area and came
back with their shoes covered with molasses. They had all kinds of
exciting stories.

"Finally, my uncle
walked me to the disaster area. Although most of the molasses had been
washed down the sewers, the damage was unbelievable. It was amazing
that the EL (elevated railway) was bent almost to the ground. The news
said the train had just passed seconds before the explosion."

Josephine
later moved to Chelsea where she now lives but will never forget
January 1919. "The story of the explosion has been revived many times
in the press and in books but my grandchildren like to hear it from me
because I was there. There can't be many of us left. I guess us old
North Enders of 1919 are becoming relics."

Epilogue

Early
speculation on the cause of the molasses tank's explosion centered on
the rapid change in the weather and the effect it had on the tank's
contents.

However, this theory was
quickly discounted and some 125 lawsuits were filed against the tank's
builder and owners. The case dragged on for six years.

Altogether,
more than 3,600 witnesses were examined and nearly 45,000 pages of
testimony and arguments were recorded. One witness, an authority on the
amount of the structural strain a steel tank could sustain before
breaking, was on the witness stand for three weeks. A private agreement
of $628,000 in damages was ultimately reached.

There has been only one book written that tells the story of the molasses flood in true historical context - Dark Tide
- by local author Stephen Puleo. It is a 263-page chronicle, the result
of years of research on one of the most bizarre tragedies in Boston
history.

(Editor's Note: We would be interested in hearing
from any member who lived in the North End in 1919, or who can relate
to the Molasses Flood.)

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