January 15, 1919 Molly Molasses

In 1954 Roger Bannister became the first human being to break the four-minute mile. Today, the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man who ever lived. It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys, that they are literally slower than cold molasses.  In January.

The fastest man alive today is the Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt. He may be the fastest man who ever lived. The average male aged 20 to 40 in reasonably good shape is capable of speeds, between 10 and 15 miles per hour. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters from a standing start at an average 23.35 mph and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 marks, at an average 27.79 mph.


On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first human to run a sub-four minute mile with an official time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys that they are literally slower than cold molasses. In January.

File photo of Bolt of Jamaica competing in the men's 100 metres semi-final heat event during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow
Usain Bolt

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated an enormous iron storage tank, in the North End of Boston. Six stories high and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons of molasses, awaiting transformation to sweeteners, drinking liquor and alcohol based munitions.

It was cold that month but on January 15 the temperature reached a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

molasses-floods-boston.jpg7_

If you were there that morning you would have heard sounds, not unlike the grumbling of some great, upset stomach. At 12:30 came a rumble, a sound like a distant train. Then came the staccato chatter of the machine gun, as iron rivets popped and the sides of the great tower split apart.

The collapse hurled a wall of molasses 40-feet high down the street at 35 miles per hour, smashing the elevated train tracks on Atlantic Ave and hurling entire buildings from foundations. Horses, wagons and dogs were caught up with broken buildings and scores of people struggling in the brown deluge, speeding across the North End. Twenty municipal workers eating lunch in a nearby city building were swept away, parts of the building hurled some fifty yards. Part of the tank wall fell on a nearby fire house, crushing the building and burying three firemen, alive.

The men playing cards at the firehouse looked out the windows and saw a dark wall that didn’t belong there. Whatever it was, the wall was coming right at them.

4944688057_166d60fb7a_b
The power of the deluge may be seen in the elevated rail, twisted and deformed as by the temper tantrum, of some titanic child.

In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton described the physical properties of fluids. Water, a “Newtonian” fluid, retains a constant viscosity (flow) between 32° and 212°, Fahrenheit. We all know what it is to swim in water. You can propel yourself through the stuff but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as ketchup or molasses, behaves differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear” in response to pressure. You can’t propel yourself through a non-Newtonian fluid. The stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps would be able to swim out of a sea of that gunk.

firefighters-tried-to-wash-the-molasses-away-with-freshwater-but-would-later-find-that-briny-seawater-was-the-only-way-to-“cut”-the-hardened-substance.-paranormalsoup-300
“Firefighters tried to wash the molasses away with freshwater, but would later find that briny seawater was the only way to “cut” the hardened substance”. H/T Historycollection.com

The Boston Post reported “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”.

In 1983, a Smithsonian Magazine article described the experience of one child: “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 four sisters staring at him”.

All told, the molasses flood of 1919 killed 21 people and injured another 150. 116 cadets from the Massachusetts Nautical School, now Mass Maritime Academy, were the first to arrive on-scene. They were soon followed by Boston Police, Red Cross, Army and Navy personnel. Some Red Cross nurses literally dove into the mess to rescue victims while doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital and worked around the clock.

Four days later the search was called off, for additional victims. The cleanup has been estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

The rupture resulted from a combination of factors. Construction was so poor, locals knew they could come down and collect household molasses from drippings down the outside of the thing which was leaking so badly the company painted it brown, to hide the leaks.

This was only the 4th time the tank was filled to capacity and rising temperatures helped build up gas pressure, inside the structure. Subsequent analysis determined the thickness and quality of the iron itself was insufficient, to contain 14,000 tons of molasses.

molasses part of tank

With temperatures so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense. Everyone knows what it is to turn over a jar of the stuff…and wait. Now, cold molasses had all but exploded. In January, no less. There must be something else. There HAD to be. Dark rumors spread outward like ripples, on a pond. Newspapers speculated. There must be some insidious cause, a bomb perhaps, planted by Italian anarchists. Or the work of German saboteurs.

The newspapermen of the age would have learned more if they’d cracked a physics textbook. In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Like, say, a wall of molasses, into the surrounding air. The air around us is after all, a fluid. Think about the way cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even when there is no wind.

Harvard lecturer and aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp explains that, as a non-Newtonian fluid, the flood would have advanced with terrifying rapidity behaving much the same as a mudslide, avalanche or lava flow. Sharp’s calculations confirm the initial flow could have indeed traveled as fast, as 35 miles per hour.

molasses flood, headline

Today, the site of the Great Molasses Flood is occupied by a recreational complex called Langone Park featuring a Little League ball field, a playground, and bocce courts. Boston Duck Tours regularly visit the place in amphibious vehicles, designed for land and water. Especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on the side.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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