Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dark Tide

One of the quirkier events in Boston history was undoubtedly the great molasses flood of 1919. The circumstances of the flood are so strange, in fact, that some people think this is an urban legend. For the people involved, however, the story was only too horrifyingly real.

In 1915, the Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol Company, constructed a steel tank 50 feet high and 240 feet around capable of storing 2.3 million gallons of molasses. Shortly after noon on January 15, 1919, the gigantic tank that towered over the city's North End neighborhood exploded, sending a tsunami of the thick, sticky liquid into the city streets. Fifteen-foot waves of molasses plowed through the waterfront area at 35 miles per hour causing immense devastation. The final toll was 21 killed and more than 150 injured. The harbor remained brown from molasses through the summer. The tank's owner was eventually found liable for the faulty design of the tank, and one of the legacies from the disaster was stricter building codes, which we all now take as commonplace. The location of the tank at 529 Commercial Street is now the site of a baseball field. A small plaque marks the site.

Stephen Puleo has written a fantastic book on the Great Boston Molasses Flood called Dark Tide. The book is a riveting read and filled with exquisite detail. Stephen also weaves the story about the flood into broader historical themes of the time such as the role of big business in the early 1900s, the rise of the anarchist movement, the onset of Prohibition, and the lack of power of immigrant communities in the U.S. I heard Stephen speak a few weeks ago about the flood at the Adams National Historical Site. Even though I had read the book already, the talk was still extremely interesting. Stephen says his goal is to present history without the dust, and he has succeeded in that. If you're looking for a good book on Boston history this summer, check it out.

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