On This Date in History: In Boston, MA near Kearny Square at 529 Commercial Street you will find the New England Aquarium, which is now located officially at 1 Central Wharf. But, nearly 100 years ago, that was the location of a Molasses production factory. On January 13-15 1919, local temperatures rose from near zero into the 40’s. Perhaps the locals might have called it a “false spring” or maybe they were just happy to have a typical brief winter warm up to have a day or two to thaw out. But, it apparently wasn’t such a good thing for the Purity Distilling Company. It is thought that their 50 foot tall, 90 foot in diameter holding tank was poorly constructed. The man who oversaw construction of the tank, Arthur Jell, determined that there was no need to perform basic safety checks when he built the tank as he never even filled the tank with water just to check for leaks. It is said that the tank leaked so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks. One would think that the owners would do more than just slap on some paint. I mean, if I had all that money invested, I’d want to avoid the cost of a cleanup and disruption of operations. But, obviously, they preferred to try to pull the wool over the eyes of any pestering bystanders. Passers-by may have been fooled but it didn’t solve the problem.
In the early 20th century, the primary sweetner in the United States was molasses. It also could be fermented to produce rum and ethyl alcohol which was quite important in pre-prohibition America. Beyond that, ethyl alcohol was a key component in the production of munitions of the day. Now, the tank had been in use for a few years and over that time it had been filled to capacity 8 times. On the one hand, that might suggest that proved the tank was sturdy. However, on the other hand, the filling and emptying also would have caused the tank to expand and shrink, which would tend to increase the liklihood of fatigue on the hoops holding it together, much like metal fatigue is a concern on a frequently used aircraft. On that warming winter day, fermentation may have been causing a buildup of carbon dioxide inside the tank. The exact cause of what happened next might never be known but what is a fact is that on this date in 1919, a manhole cover near the base of the tank ruptured, perhaps caused by a fatigue crack. A wave of molasses cascaded through the neighborhood at 35 mph taking the lives of 21 people and injuring 150. It is known as the Boston Molasses Disaster.
The 8 to 15 high wave of molasses had sufficient force to break the girders of the Atlantic Avenue portion of the Boston Elevated Railway. A train was lifted off the tracks. Buildings were swept off their foundations and city streets for blocks were left with 2-3 feet of molasses. I’m not sure if a Humvee of today could make it through that. Apparently, the molasses itself wasn’t the sole killer that day as the Boston Globe reported that people “were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet.” The Globe also told the story of “Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his sisters staring at him.” A truck was tossed into the Boston Harbor. Aside from the deaths and injuries from people being crushed by the force of the air, flying debris and drowning in molasses, people continued to suffer from the after-effects. Family pets and horses were counted among the dead and injured which brought grief and economic despair for their owners. Fits of coughing were common among the residents of the area for days after the disaster.
It has been speculated over the years that the Purity Distilling Company had overfilled the tanks in late 1918 in an attempt to produce as much ethyl alcohol and rum as they could in anticipation of Prohibition. While it is true that the 18th Amendment was ratified the day after the disaster, it must be noted that President Woodrow Wilson opposed the Volstead Act because it did not exempt industrial alcohol and that was needed for armaments in World War I. Beyond that, the Volstead Act was the legislation that actually enforced the 18th Amendment which was not to take effect until January 20, 1920 and it was not passed by the Congress, after over-riding a presidential veto, until October 1919. State prohibition laws of the time exempted industrial alcohol and the final version of the Volstead Act eventually exempted such useage. So, it was possible the company wanted to sell as much booze as possible but it’s not like the company’s viability rode on Prohibition. Either way, getting taken out by a flood of molasses is a crappy way to die. Wonder what those 21 tombstones say? And it’s foolish, arguably criminal, behaviour by companies of yesterday that has led to the regulation of corporate America today. Some of those regulations are probably un-necessarily constraining, are politically motivated, cost companies and shareholders money and also cost jobs. But, one has only to look at the results of foolishness by companies like the Purity Distilling Company to lead one to conclude that the fault can be found corporate America’s mirror and those ghosts found in the background.