Two million gallons of molasses, to go.
January 15, 2019 1:02 PM   Subscribe

One hundred years ago today, a storage tank burst in Boston, unleashing a thirty-foot wave of molasses that flooded the streets at thirty-five miles per hour. Twenty-one people died, some of them by suffocating in the sweet, sticky mire. Here's a song about it.
posted by Faint of Butt (68 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Previously, previouslier.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:04 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


Sweeeet.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:07 PM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


It was a molassacre.
posted by ananci at 1:11 PM on January 15, 2019 [40 favorites]


Here's another song about it.
posted by SansPoint at 1:14 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


Nicole Sharp, an aerospace engineer and science educator, explains: "You basically have a giant stack of something that's really heavy and as soon as you remove whatever's holding that — in this case, the walls of the tank — all of that's gonna rush out."

You learn something every day.
posted by davebush at 1:19 PM on January 15, 2019 [6 favorites]


Here's my takeaway from this.

Everyone thinks this is funny because most people don't really like molasses. Plus the whole slow thing. But part of the gag is that people don't feel all that invested in molasses because molasses is, let's face it, gross. It's nominally sweet, but if you ate a spoonful of it it's not exactly honey or maple syrup. It's all... molasses-ey. It's basically sweet garbage.

BUT. People are so g-d desperate for anything sweet that a hundred years ago this sweet garbage was considered the best thing and people could not get enough of it. That is how much people love sugar. That they're willing to eat it in molasses.

People really can be that desperate.
posted by GuyZero at 1:23 PM on January 15, 2019 [12 favorites]


Excuse you, molasses is arguably more delicious than other forms of sugar because it has a particular complexity to it. It's definitely better than honey or maple syrup, the former of which is overhyped and the latter of which is weirdly disgusting.
posted by sciatrix at 1:26 PM on January 15, 2019 [32 favorites]


Especially when you’re bleeding, so I’m told.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:30 PM on January 15, 2019


It would have been funnier as a Vegemite or Marmite spill, but that would not have been an American event.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:30 PM on January 15, 2019


This must be the sticky end my teachers warned me about.
posted by w0mbat at 1:31 PM on January 15, 2019 [5 favorites]


yet another song about it
posted by French Fry at 1:32 PM on January 15, 2019 [6 favorites]


People are so g-d desperate for anything sweet that a hundred years ago this sweet garbage was considered the best thing and people could not get enough of it. That is how much people love sugar.

Except that this particular sugar was intended to be turned into alcohol, which is something people love even more than sugar.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:35 PM on January 15, 2019 [49 favorites]


oh yes how could I forget. *clears throat* Rum is deeply underappreciated among boozes, and also incredibly historically important in the context of the trade routes of Boston at the time--not quite at the level of the famous triangle trade of molasses, rum, and slaves, not by 1919, but particularly given that this was just before Prohibition... well, it was some pretty valuable molasses by then.

More seriously, the impact of the molasses flood on class action suits is pretty impressive. I didn't know that it set the legal groundwork for the responsibilities of corporations with respect to public safety (not just employee safety) or the groundwork for class action suits of many affected individuals against an existing incorporated unit. That's actually really huge in terms of impact, and it's startling how quick folks are to reduce it to "haha flood of candy!"
posted by sciatrix at 1:44 PM on January 15, 2019 [35 favorites]


I don't think I'm quite up to trash talking rum because unlike molasses, rum's not bad.

a particular complexity to it

yeah, the the odour of a full diaper

maple syrup... which is weirdly disgusting

OH NO YOU DIDN'T

/me tears of toque and throws it on the ground

but no joke, my dad grew up sometimes eating a bowl of maple syrup for dessert. He has type 2 diabetes now.
posted by GuyZero at 1:45 PM on January 15, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm always inclined to joke about this tragedy whenever it comes up, but the thought of drowning in a thick syrup is absolutely terrifying.
posted by slogger at 1:46 PM on January 15, 2019 [27 favorites]


particularly given that this was just before Prohibition... well, it was some pretty valuable molasses by then.

Did this molasses flood lead to Prohibition?

Probably not, but WHAT IF IT DID?
posted by GuyZero at 1:48 PM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


My friend, along with people he knows from the City of Boston Archaeology Program, staged a commemorative event at the site of the storage tank this morning. Here's a lovely local story about the event, including information about the Archaeological work done to identify the site of the tank. Amazingly, the entire site is now a sports field, and not buried under condos, as they feared it would be.
posted by anastasiav at 1:48 PM on January 15, 2019 [12 favorites]


I first learned about this when I was younger, and my initial reaction was "ha-ha, molasses flood," and then I forgot about it. And now I'm a parent, and something has changed. This morning I read an article about the accident, and it talks about a father watching his child die in the flood, and I just feel like a defective human being for ever thinking this was funny.

If you live in the Boston area, the Massachusetts Historical Society is hosting a series of talks on the disaster in January, February, and March.
posted by compartment at 1:50 PM on January 15, 2019 [21 favorites]


I just want to thank FoB for posting my favorite band's super-catchy song about death by syrup.

Personally, I'm planning on making molasses ginger cookies tonight.
posted by cobaltnine at 1:54 PM on January 15, 2019 [3 favorites]


I’ve been aware of this for a while but it seemed a peculiar antique event, you know: back when everybody wore hats. Huh... only 100 years ago!
posted by sjswitzer at 1:55 PM on January 15, 2019


Especially when you’re bleeding, so I’m told.

Sulfur and molassses, aka the "spring tonic," was a universal remedy for just about everything, including keeping your blood from getting too thick over the winter. (One of many cites) Sounds rather yucky, actually.
posted by Melismata at 1:57 PM on January 15, 2019


I was just gonna say, any kind of ginger dessert probably has molasses in it. I also recently learned that you can create your own light brown or dark brown sugar if you have molasses and white sugar (since that's all brown sugar is). This came in very handy when I needed dark brown sugar for a recipe, but only had molasses and light brown sugar.

Considering how slowly molasses moves, I find it pretty impressive that a wave of molasses could get up to 35mph. But it's like anything that sounds like it's out of a cartoon (and therefore funny) but the reality is actually horrifying.
posted by Autumnheart at 1:58 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


Lost in the "lol molasses" chatter is something sciatrix mentioned: this was actually a story about corporate greed and irresponsibility killing dozens of people. That tank was designed to a spec that should have never in a million years been approved; it was built with even thinner steel plates than the spec called for, because the owners wanted to save a few bucks on construction costs. It was some of the most brazen corporate malfeasance the country had ever seen, and I say this about an event that happened less than a decade after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. The resulting judicial precedent (class-action suits, corporate liability) are the reason that we aren't all still being poisoned, burned, crushed, or otherwise worked to death by our employers.

So for that, and for those whose lives were lost to make such momentous change possible:

.
posted by Mayor West at 2:00 PM on January 15, 2019 [108 favorites]


This morning I read an article about the accident, and it talks about a father watching his child die in the flood, and I just feel like a defective human being for ever thinking this was funny.

Come for the human tragedy, stay for the explanation of why the whole thing was capitalism's fault.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:01 PM on January 15, 2019 [8 favorites]


(The tank was constantly springing leaks. So the company that owned it painted the tank brown.)
posted by tobascodagama at 2:01 PM on January 15, 2019 [10 favorites]


My youngest’s babysitter gives him warm milk with a teaspoon of molasses every day and he loves it.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 2:03 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


As for molasse itself, well it a just the thing sometimes as an ingredient, even if (to some) overwhelming alone. Ginger cookies have been mentioned and FWIW, ginger too can be overwhelming alone.

Brown sugar today is typically just white sugar with some molasses mixed back in. So even if a spoonful of molasses is not your thing, you have probably enjoyed it indirectly on your oatmeal.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:04 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


Molasses was, at that time, also used in the manufacture of munitions and I believe that I have read that was the eventual use for which the molasses stored in Boston was to be put. (I may be misremembering that, but...)

So no, probably didn't lead to Prohibition.
posted by darchildre at 2:05 PM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


A childhood memory just nagged at me: one of the books in J P Martin's Uncle series, Uncle and the Treacle Trouble (1967) in which a flood is caused by the accidental rupture of a tower bearing the cryptic sign 'TREAC LEVAT', and which might have been inspired by the Boston disaster.
posted by mikelynch at 2:05 PM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


A discussion of the physics behind the molasses tsunami:

https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/11/24/harvard-scientists-dig-into-fluid-dynamics-behind-molasses-disaster/Lt5Ps31AEGGaTL3QiZqB7I/story.html

tl;dr The tank had just been filled by a shipment of molasses from the Caribbean, which had so much thermal mass that it hadn't had time to cool to Boston temperatures yet. The extra heat kicked off some good old fashioned fermentation, which increased the temperature at the center of the massive tank even more. When the tank let go, the heated molasses (propelled by the weight of millions of pounds of dense fluid behind it) formed a 25-foot-tall wave that destroyed buildings and took down an elevated rail line. It was a bitterly cold day, so within seconds of the wave cresting over you, it thickened into an unescapable sludge. Rescuers couldn't get to survivors, and people who could have easily swum out of an equal depth of water were quickly overcome.
posted by Mayor West at 2:09 PM on January 15, 2019 [22 favorites]


this was actually a story about corporate greed and irresponsibility killing dozens of people.

This makes it happening the day Rosa Luxemburg died weirdly... coincidental.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:11 PM on January 15, 2019 [7 favorites]


Just to give a sense of scale -- 2.3M gallons is about 4 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of molasses.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:12 PM on January 15, 2019


"...a 30 foot wall moved at 35mph down the street."

Molasses I've seen is a very thing sludge. It's very cold in Boston in mid-January.

How did something that thick in a place that cold move that fast?
posted by CrowGoat at 2:12 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


1. The molasses flood did not lead to Prohibition, but other way around: they were brewing like mad to get the market flooded with rum before Prohibition kicked in.

2. The West Indian molasses was, of course, one of the last remnants of the old Triangle Trade. A fair amount of it died down after the abolition of slavery and all, but there was still a lively trade in molasses to Massachusetts to brew up some truly awful rum.

Another remnant is the taste for dried saltfish (historically cod) in the West Indies. Ackee and saltfish, for example, is also delicious. The cod trade out of Massachusetts only ended in the early 1990s.

3. Boston rum still has a bad reputation.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 2:27 PM on January 15, 2019 [7 favorites]


from the previouslier, CrowGoat: the molasses was still slightly warm from being loaded a few days before. Molasses is also a shear-thinning fluid: the more it is deformed, the less viscous it becomes.

  Uncle and the Treacle Trouble … might have been inspired by the Boston disaster.

Highly likely. I'm just reading J.P. Martin: Father of Uncle, and the stories were written in the late 1910s to early 1920s. Here's the part where they make the fateful discovery:
“Now for the tower with those strange words on it,” he said, looking up at the huge carved letters. “Treac Levat! There’s something strangely familiar about those letters. What is it, I wonder?”

Cowgill had already chalked out a small square on the wall of this last tower, and now began to drill.

“To speak, sir,” said a small shouting voice, not easy to hear above the stuttering of the drill.

Uncle looked down at the One-Armed Badger.

“Well, my friend, what is it?” he roared back.

“Please, sir. Words on wall mean Treacle Vat.”

Uncle looked again at the words.

“Treac Levat!” he said pondering, and then shouted, “Cowgill, hold it! Hold it!”

Cowgill stopped the drill and turned to look patiently at Uncle. He had had so many delays and set-backs that he wasn’t surprised that yet another stoppage should occur.

“Cowgill,” said Uncle urgently, “there is a strong probability that this tower is full of treacle! You’d better drill no more till we find out!”

They both went to look closely at the scar made by the drill. To their horror a dark sticky liquid was already trickling down the wall.

“Who’d have believed it, this huge tower is full of black treacle!” gasped Cowgill.
posted by scruss at 2:29 PM on January 15, 2019 [6 favorites]


1. The molasses flood did not lead to Prohibition, but other way around: they were brewing like mad to get the market flooded with rum before Prohibition kicked in.

flagged. FLAGGED.
posted by GuyZero at 2:31 PM on January 15, 2019 [6 favorites]


Being sticky absolutely horrifies me, to the point where I'll seriously skeeve myself out by simply thinking of it.   It's not debilitating as a rule, I don't freak out if my hands get sticky…as long as I know I'll be able to clean them very soon.   But it is one of those quirks strong enough my friends know of it.   It's one of those horrors that effects the imagination more strongly than reality, mostly because I know I have access to running water and will shortly no longer be sticky, and that keeps me sane.

This disaster is pure nightmare fuel for me. Every time I run across it I get that shivery, squicked out, shoulder-rolling feeling.  What they endured, the pure horror (to me) of being stuck in that mess. UGH.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 2:31 PM on January 15, 2019 [4 favorites]


My mother remembers being given a spoonful of blackstrap molasses for all kinds of minor ailments.

I had never heard of this incident; it's horrifying.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:47 PM on January 15, 2019


Came here to post the Schooner Fare song, pleasantly surprised to find that I was beaten to it. Y'all are my people.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:55 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


One account I just read pointed out that it was gathered up by just about any bostonian that could find time to walk over and not having sealable tupperware containers yet; basically the city had sticky spots everywhere for a few years, sidewalks, subway seats, park benches, as far away as Worcester (hour away by car today).
posted by sammyo at 3:07 PM on January 15, 2019 [3 favorites]




Weirdly enough, I learned about this from a Milk And Cheese comic where they break into someone's house, quiz him on it, and then dish out their trademarked violence when he couldn't answer.

I actually went and looked it up after that. I'm still waiting for the Christopher Nolan adaptation, because I want to see this done with practical effects.
posted by lumpenprole at 3:14 PM on January 15, 2019 [4 favorites]


tragedy+time=comedy

sweet, sweet, swwweeeeeet, sticky, caramelized comedy.
posted by lalochezia at 3:23 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


Everyone thinks this is funny because most people don't really like molasses.

I'm with you as far as the fact that molasses on its own isn't something I'd want to eat, but I think the people who don't like it period don't bake enough. It is a magical pastry ingredient.
posted by invitapriore at 3:25 PM on January 15, 2019 [5 favorites]


A friend told me that as of a few years ago, the neighborhood still smelled of molasses.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 3:38 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


For all of the haters, but especially for the fans: this is my favorite ice cream, it is wonderful and you should make it. I've got some in my freezer right now.

You're welcome.

This incident, like so much of life, seems funny until you learn more about it. If the humor of it is what gets you to pay attention, then it is serving a worthy purpose.
posted by monopas at 3:52 PM on January 15, 2019 [3 favorites]


You need molasses to make gingerbread. Also barbeque sauce.
posted by JamesBay at 4:20 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


Anarchists got blamed for the disaster, mostly cause they had tried to sabotage it before (molasses was part of the war effort). It killed 21, injured 150, destroyed $100m in property.

Capitalist neglience was the cause, but owners blamed: anarchists. An investigation forced the company to pay damages, led to tighter safety regulations.
posted by The Whelk at 4:39 PM on January 15, 2019 [17 favorites]


Wait, who puts barbecue sauce in their gingerbread?
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:54 PM on January 15, 2019 [5 favorites]


My mother remembers being given a spoonful of blackstrap molasses for all kinds of minor ailments.

Blackstrap molasses is like the third refining, and supposedly has all sorts of minerals and health benefits, but it's not what you reach for in the kitchen.
posted by mikelieman at 5:13 PM on January 15, 2019


Wait, who puts barbecue sauce in their gingerbread?

Dunno, but I put ginger in my barbecue sauce.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 5:58 PM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


Wait, who puts barbecue sauce in their gingerbread?

Dastard!
posted by JamesBay at 6:10 PM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


Seems like in the early 1900s, anarchists were getting blamed for basically everything. Anarchists were to 1919 as terrorists are to 2019.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:31 PM on January 15, 2019 [10 favorites]


Terrorists are so early oughts. Deep state is the hobgoblin now.
posted by vrakatar at 6:36 PM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


Yeah I totally got a case of the babies right now, because this post made me cry immediately for all the people.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:49 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]


Well to be fair it would have been an awful way to die. Like being crushed under a tidal wave of wet concrete. It's a disaster that is remembered for being highly unusual, but it was still a disaster.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:57 PM on January 15, 2019 [3 favorites]


Weirdly enough, I learned about this from a Milk And Cheese comic where they break into someone's house, quiz him on it, and then dish out their trademarked violence when he couldn't answer.

CATALOGUE THESE FACTS, CHARLES L. HURLBURT
posted by delfin at 7:02 PM on January 15, 2019 [4 favorites]


How did something that thick in a place that cold move that fast?

Two things: First, the molasses was hot when it was pumped out of a ship. And Jan. 15, 1919 was unseasonably warm for Boston - it was above 40.

So it was literally a hot mess.

The Boston City Archives has a lot of before and after photos of the tank and the surrounding area. This one, taken in 1916 from the elevated tracks that used to run next to the tank, is particularly eerie and foreboding.

I attended the commemoration today. It was interesting in that people lined up around the perimeter of the tank, which was marked by a penetrating ground radar pulled along by some grad students at UMass Boston (the only permanent marker is a tiny plaque on Commercial Street on a retaining wall outside what is now Langone Park). It was moving because the city parks commissioner read the names of the dead and people observed a moment of silence.
posted by adamg at 7:17 PM on January 15, 2019 [8 favorites]


It's not surprising to me that the molasses would've moved that fast. It was two million gallons—twelve thousand tons of molasses. Take away the tank, and that mass is going to get moving downhill in a hurry. Think of an avalanche. Also, as mentioned above, molasses gets thinner as it moves faster—also like an avalanche, as it happens. So there's a bit of a runaway effect. But really it's just a whole lot of mass all suddenly trying to find a new local minimum on the potential energy gradient.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:20 AM on January 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


 Wait, who puts barbecue sauce in their gingerbread?

Eww, that would be nasty. Everyone knows that bbq sauce goes best with sugar cookies.

(it does, really. Break out the Sweet Baby Ray's when the holiday cookies are out, and you'll have a great time.)
posted by scruss at 8:53 AM on January 16, 2019


Wheat flour also tastes awful. That doesn’t seem to drive people away from cakes and bread.

Black molasses is good drizzled on fresh hot biscuits. Other than that I don’t have much use for it outside of cooking.
posted by ardgedee at 9:25 AM on January 16, 2019


If you like a chewy cookie, molasses is your best friend. It also gives depth of flavor to wheat bread.
posted by domo at 9:53 AM on January 16, 2019


Lost in the "lol molasses" chatter is something sciatrix mentioned: this was actually a story about corporate greed and irresponsibility killing dozens of people.

I used to think it was funny too. Drunk History did a pretty great segment on it that placed the blame squarely on the asshats in charge, who basically shrugged and moved on without consequence (well, the company paid a penalty, but otherwise no consequence).
posted by graventy at 10:22 AM on January 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


A friend told me that as of a few years ago, the neighborhood still smelled of molasses.

Well - as of about 8-years ago, when I was there on a hot August day, there was definitely an odor of molasses in the air.
posted by jkaczor at 10:55 AM on January 16, 2019


Futility Closet Podcast had an episode from 2017 that covered the whole disaster.
posted by wcfields at 12:34 PM on January 16, 2019


A friend told me that as of a few years ago, the neighborhood still smelled of molasses.

No, that's fanciful, there's not a trace of molasses smell now - but a lingering smell was documented through the 40s. I used to give tours in that neighborhood (all summer) and though there are many smells, none are especially sweet.
posted by Miko at 12:40 PM on January 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


My grandmother, who is now ninety-ish, says that it did still smell like molasses on hot days when she was a teenager, so, yes, I have a sourced eyewitness -- well, nose-witness -- that corroborates that story. But, yeah, if you smell molasses around nowadays, it's because someone near you has brought some molasses or something.
posted by Xiphias Gladius at 3:45 PM on January 16, 2019


I think it's a bit of a piece of Boston cultural lore. I Googled around about it yesterday, and have given a lot of thought to it from a public history perspective - and though there are a lot of people who like to say "on a hot day you can still smell molasses" it's really debatable, and without sophisticated scientific equipment, really untested and untestable, how long the smell was detectable (and I couldn't find anything giving solid evidence about that). People have been saying it by citing living memory going back to at least the '40s, but I suppose it's an open question as to whether it was lore for them then (even if they believed it personally) or was actually still present in traceable amounts.

Given Boston's weather and levels of precipitation, and the number of times the site has been inundated in floods and hurricanes, and the fact that the substrate is basically mudflat containing untold millions of organic-matter-eating microbes, and the amount of change and disturbance around the site itself with the redevelopment of the entire area from the 1970s urban renewal projects that eventually rebuilt the entire former industrial area, using fill, into the Harborwalk -- well, despite the romantic tendency to keep the memory and impact of the molasses flood alive by claiming a sensory link, I have a really hard time believing any kind of organic spill odor would linger for decades, especially when competing with all the other residues, smells, garbage, etc. of the river, of war work, of waterfront excavation and fill, of a busy and changing immigrant neighborhood.

Interesting, I searched Google Books for variants on the "still smell molasses" legend, and found absolutely nothing before 1965, when a book about disasters called "The Elements Rage" includes the phrase "Years afterward the smell of molasses could still be detected where the flood had pushed its sticky way." I found absolutely nothing before that date - and a proliferation of the tale afterward. Interesting!

I love that the story exists, but doubt it is factual or has been for anything beyond a year or two after the event itself. The notion of a lingering smell is a little mini-study in cultural placemaking and storytelling, and the borderlines between suggestibility, imagination, and reality.
posted by Miko at 6:57 AM on January 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


« Older “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains...   |   Carol will never go away again Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments