January 15, 1919 Slower than Cold Molasses, in January

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

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.

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man who ever lived. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters at an average 23.35 mph from a standing start, and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 markers, at an average 27.79 mph.

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 a large molasses storage tank at 529 Commercial Street, in the North End of Boston. Fifty feet tall and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons, about 14,000 tons of the sweet stuff, awaiting transfer to the Purity industrial alcohol distillation plant, in Cambridge.

It had been cold earlier in the month, but on January 15, it was a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

molasses-floods-boston.jpg7_

If you were there at about 12:30, the first sound you might have heard was a rumble, like the sound of a distant train. The next sound was like that of a machine gun, as rivets popped and the two sides of the metal tower split apart.

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

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, but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as molasses, acts very differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear”, in response to pressure. You do not propel yourself through non-Newtonian fluid, the stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps is swimming out of all that gunk.

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”.

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

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 rescuers 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.

It was four days before the search was called off for additional victims. The total cleanup was estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

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.

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 it was painted brown to hide the leaks.

This was only the 6th or 7th time the tank had been filled to capacity, and rising temperatures almost surely helped to build up gas pressure inside the structure.

molasses part of tank

With temperatures being so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense. The proverbial “cold molasses” had exploded it seemed, in January.  Newspapers speculated that there must be something more. A bomb, perhaps.

Newspapers would more profitably have resorted to their physics books. In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Think about the way cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even with no wind behind it.

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 boccie courts. The Boston Duck Tours DUKW’s regularly visit the place with their amphibious vehicles, especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on its side.

molly molasses

Feature image, top of page:  H/T Boston Globe.

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January 15, 1919 Slower than Cold Molasses

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”.

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

The Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is recorded as the fastest man who ever lived. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters at an average 23.35 mph from a standing start, and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 markers, at an average 27.79 mph.

I suppose 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

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated a large molasses storage tank at 529 Commercial Street, in the North End of Boston. Fifty feet tall and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons, about 14,000 tons of the sweet stuff, awaiting transfer to the Purity plant in Cambridge.

It had been cold earlier in the month, but on January 15, it was a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

If you’d been there at about 12:30, the first sound you might have heard was a rumble, like the sound of a distant train. The next sound was like that of a machine gun, as rivets popped and the two sides of the metal tower split apart.

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

2rd_pa-8637269-800x533

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, but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as molasses, acts very differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear”, in response to pressure. You do not propel yourself through non-Newtonian fluid, the stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps is swimming out of that gunk.

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 rescuers 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.

boston-molasses-flood-ap-969731587817

It was four days before the search was called off for additional victims. The total cleanup was estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

It was probably a combination of factors that caused the tank to rupture. Construction was poor from the beginning. Locals knew they could come down and collect household molasses from the drippings down the outside of the thing, which was leaking so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks.

This was only the 6th or 7th time the tank had been filled to capacity, and the rising temperatures almost surely helped to build up gas pressure inside the structure. The Volstead Act, better known as Prohibition, was being passed in Washington the following day, to take effect the following year. I’m sure that distillers were producing as much hooch as they could while it was still legal.

With temperatures being so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense.  The proverbial “cold molasses” had exploded it seemed, in January.  Newspapers speculated that there must be something more.  A bomb, perhaps.

Newspapers would more profitably have resorted to their physics books.  In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Think about the way that cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even with no wind to drive it.

Molly Molasses

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. The Boston Duck Tours DUKW’s regularly visit the place with their amphibious vehicles, especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on its side.

January 15, 1919 Great Molasses Flood

“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”

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 MoscowRoger Bannister became the first human to run a sub-four minute mile on May 6, 1954, with an official time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. The Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is recorded as the fastest man who ever lived. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters at an average 23.35 mph from a standing start, and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 markers at an average 27.79 mph.

I suppose it would come as a rude shock to both of those guys, that they are literally slower than cold molasses, in January.

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated a large molasses storage tank at 529 Commercial Street, in the North End of Boston. Fifty feet tall and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons, about 14,000 tons of the sweet stuff, awaiting transfer to the Purity plant in Cambridge.

It had been cold earlier in the month, but on January 15, it was a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

If you’d been there at about 12:30, the first sound you might have heard was a rumble, like the sound of a distant train. The next sound was like that of a machine gun, as rivets popped and the two sides of the metal tower split apart.

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

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, but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as molasses, acts very differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear”, in response to pressure. You do not propel yourself through non-Newtonian fluid, the stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps is swimming out of all that gunk.

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”.

molasses-plaqueIn 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 rescuers 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.

It was four days before the search was called off for additional victims. The total cleanup was estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

It was probably a combination of factors that caused the tank to rupture. Construction was poor from the beginning. Locals knew they could come down and collect household molasses from the drippings down the outside of the thing, which was leaking so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks.

This was only the 6th or 7th time the tank had been filled to capacity, and the rising temperatures almost surely helped to build up gas pressure inside the structure. The Volstead Act, better known as Prohibition, was being passed in Washington the following day, to take effect the following year. I’m sure that distillers were producing as much hooch as they could while it was still legal. molly-molasses

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. The Boston Duck Tours DUKW’s regularly visit the place with their amphibious vehicles, especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on its side.

December 16, 1773 Boston Tea Party

The Tea Act actually reduced the price of tea, but Colonists saw it as an effort to buy popular support for taxes already in force

In the time of Henry VIII, British military outlays as a percentage of central government expenses averaged 29.4%.   That number skyrocketed to 74.6% in the 18th century, and never dropped below 55%.

The Seven Years’ War alone, fought on a global scale from 1756 – ‘63, saw England borrow the unprecedented sum of £58 million, doubling the national debt and straining the British economy.

For the American colonies, the conflict took the form of the French and Indian War.  The British government saw its American colonies as the beneficiary of much of their expense, and wanted to be reimbursed.  For the colonists, the never-ending succession of English wars meant that they were largely left alone to run their own affairs.

Several measures were taken to collect revenues, as colonists bristled at the heavy handed taxation policies of the 1760s.. The Sugar Act, the Currency Act:  in one 12-month period, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, Quartering Act, and the Declaratory Act, and deputized Royal Navy Sea Officers to enforce customs laws in colonial ports.

The merchants and traders of Boston specifically cited “the late war” and the expenses related to it, concluding the Boston Non-Importation Agreement of August 1, 1768. The agreement prohibited the importation of a long list of goods, ending with the statement ”That we will not, from and after the 1st of January 1769, import into this province any tea, paper, glass, or painters colours, until the act imposing duties on those articles shall be repealed”.

The ‘Boston Massacre’ of 1770 was a direct result of the tensions between colonists andgaspee-shippey the “Regulars” sent to enforce the will of the Crown.  Two years later, Sons of Liberty looted and burned the HMS Gaspee in Narragansett Bay, RI.

The Tea Act, passed by Parliament on May 10, 1773, was less a revenue measure than it was an effort to prop up the British East India Company, by that time burdened with debt and holding eighteen million pounds of unsold tea.  The measure actually reduced the price of tea, but Colonists saw it as an effort to buy popular support for taxes already in force, and refused the cargo.  In Philadelphia and New York, tea ships were turned away and sent back to Britain while in Charleston, the cargo was left to rot on the docks.

British law required a tea ship to offload and pay customs duty within 20 days, or the cargo was forfeit.  The Dartmouth arrived in Boston at the end of November with a cargo of tea, followed by the tea ships Eleanor and Beaver.  Sam Adams called for a meeting at Faneuil Hall on the 29th, which then moved to Old South Meeting House to accommodate the crowd.  25 men were assigned to watch Dartmouth, making sure it didn’t unload.

7,000 gathered at Old South Meeting House on December 16th, 1773, the last day of Dartmouth’s deadline.  Royal Governor Hutchinson held his ground, refusing Dartmouth permission to leave.  Adams announced that “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.”

sons-of-libertyThat night, somewhere between 30 and 130 Sons of Liberty, some dressed as Mohawk Indians, boarded the three ships in Boston Harbor.  There they threw 342 chests of tea, 90,000 pounds in all, into Boston Harbor.  £9,000 worth of tea was destroyed, worth about $1.5 million in today’s dollars.

In the following months, other protesters staged their own “Tea Parties”, destroying imported British tea in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Greenwich, NJ.  There was even a second Boston Tea Party on March 7, 1774, when 60 Sons of Liberty, again dressed as Mohawks, boarded the “Fortune”.  This time they dumped 3,000lbs of the stuff into the harbor.  That October in Annapolis Maryland, the Peggy Stewart was burned to the water line.

For decades to come, the December 16 incident in Boston Harbor was blithely referred to as “the destruction of the tea.” The earliest newspaper reference to “tea party” wouldn’t come to us until 1826.

John Crane of Braintree is one of the few original tea partiers ever identified, and the only man injured in the event. An original member of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati and early member of the Sons of Liberty, Crane was struck on the head by a tea crate and thought to be dead.  His body was carried away and hidden under a pile of shavings at a Boston cabinet maker’s shop.  It must have been a sight when John Crane “rose from the dead”, the following morning.

Great Britain responded with the “Intolerable Acts” of 1774, including the occupation of intolerable-actsBoston by British troops.    Minutemen clashed with “Lobster backs” a few months later, on April 19, 1775.  No one alive today knows who fired the first shot at Lexington Green. History would record it as “The shot heard ’round the world”.

December 10, 1917 Halifax Explosion

French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen

As “The Great War” dragged itself to the end of its third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia, was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”.  With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

The Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring in Halifax harbor on the morning of December 6, destined for New York City.   The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.  In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance then in use as a high explosive.  In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.  Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of its cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting the TNP onboard Mont Blanc.  French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

Meanwhile, the spectacle of a flaming ship was too much to resist, as crowds gathered around the harbor.  The high-pitched whine emitted by picric acid under combustion remains a feature of fireworks displays to this day.  You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier, setting it ablaze, before running aground.

The explosion and resulting fires killed over 1,800, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.  With over 1,600 homes flattened, it was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.  Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three.  Later analysis estimated the explosive output at 2.9 kilotons, a force greater than many tactical nuclear weapons.

9,000 were wounded on the morning of December 7, as a blizzard descended across Nova Scotia.  Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

Curley was as good as his word.  He and Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax Relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid.  McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour alone. President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax.  Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station, with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train on the scene.

There was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster.  A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today.  Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude, a very large Christmas tree.

In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent Boston another tree, to promote their Christmas tree exports, and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.

And so it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the people of Boston their official Christmas tree.  More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two of Boston’s homeless shelters.

This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate:  17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.2016-boston-christmas-tree

This year’s tree stands just short of 46′, for the first time selected from the Cape Breton area. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work.  It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey south.

For a small Canadian province, it’s been no small commitment.  Last year Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation, cutting & lighting ceremonies, and all the promotions that went with it.  Premier Stephen McNeil says the program is well worth the expense. “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”.  Tim Whynot, manager of stewardship and outreach for the provincial Department of Natural Resources, may have the last word.  “With the Tree for Boston, obviously the history of why we do it is pretty significant…we don’t want that to be forgotten”.

November 28, 1942 Cocoanut Grove

492 lost their lives in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, a building with a rated capacity of 460

If go behind the Hotel Radisson in Boston, over by the parking garage, you’ll find 17 Piedmont Street, in the Bay Village neighborhood. The address is a parking lot now.  74 years ago, it was the most popular nightclub in Boston.
Rumors of criminal connections followed the Cocoanut Grove for years. The former owner, gangster and bootlegger Charles “King” Solomon, was gunned down ten years earlier in the men’s room of Roxbury’s Cotton Club. “Barney” Welansky, the current owner, liked to brag about his ties with the Mob and with Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin. Welansky was in Mass General Hospital that night, recovering from a heart attack. He would soon have a lot of company.
The club had been a speakeasy during prohibition. Originally a garage and warehouse, Cocoanut Grove was converted into a 1½ story complex of dining rooms, bars, and lounges, offering patrons dining and dancing in a “tropical paradise” of artificial palm trees, satin bunting and paper palm fronds, complete with a roof which could be rolled back when weather permitted for dancing under the stars.
Welansky was a tough boss, who seemed maniacally determined not to be beaten out of a tab or a cover charge. He locked exit doors, concealed others with draperies, and even bricked up one emergency exit. Nobody was going to leave Cocoanut Grove without paying up.
Boston College had just ended an undefeated season, losing their slot in the Sugar Bowl in a stunning loss to Holy Cross, 55–12.  Over a thousand football fans, military service members and Thanksgiving weekend revelers crowded into the nightclub that night.  The rated capacity was 460.
Downstairs in the Melody Lounge, Goody Goodelle played piano on a revolving stage, surrounded by paper palms. Someone, perhaps a soldier on leave with his sweetheart, had removed a light bulb to have a little privacy. 16 year old bus boy Stanley Tomaszewski climbed up to replace the bulb, lighting a match so he could see what he was doing.
The decorations ignited immediately, fire racing so fast along the satin canopy, that wooden strips hanging it from the ceiling remained unscathed.
Waiters attempted to douse the fire with water, but it spread far too quickly. Lounge patrons were overcome so rapidly by toxic smoke, that some were later found dead in their seats, drinks still in their hands.
Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of people trying to escape. The orchestra was just beginning its evening show as a fireball leapt across the dance floor, spreading quickly through the Caricature Bar, and down a hallway to the Broadway Lounge. Inside of five minutes, flames had spread into the main hall and the entire nightclub was ablaze.cocoanut_grove_night_club_fire
Today, fire codes require revolving doors to be flanked by doors on either side, but that wasn’t the case in 1942. Desperate to escape, patrons packed the single revolving door, their bodies jamming it so tightly that firefighters later had to dismantle the entire frame.
The bodies of club guests piled up at locked exits, as other doors, opening inward, quickly became useless in the crush of bodies. Firefighters later testified that 300 could have been saved, if only those doors had opened to the outside.
The most striking story of survival that night was that of Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson, who returned to the nightclub no fewer than four times in search of his date, Estelle Balkan. He didn’t know that she had safely escaped, and each time Johnson returned with another unconscious smoke victim in his arms. Johnson himself was on fire his last time out, when he collapsed onto the sidewalk, still ablaze.
Three other burn victims were taken to Mass General that night, with burns over 30% of their bodies. Johnson alone survived the ordeal, despite suffering third degree burns over 55% of his body. He would suffer almost two years of painful medical treatments, including no fewer than 30,000 skin grafts in the first year alone.
I earn my living in the Commercial Furniture business.  I can tell you from experience that Cocoanut Grove effects Boston fire code regulations to this day. 492 died in the conflagration, the deadliest nightclub fire in American history. Barney Welansky was tried and convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter, and sentenced to 12-15 years. Maurice Tobin, by then Governor, released him after four, his body ravaged with cancer. Welansky died 9 weeks later. Stanley Tomaszewski was exonerated.  It wasn’t he who had placed all those flammable decorations, but he was treated like a Jonah for the rest of his life.
Clifford Johnson would be 21 months in the hospital, after which he married his nurse and returned to his home state of Missouri, the first of his era to survive such severe burns. Ironically, Johnson would be killed in a car wreck in 1956, pinned beneath an overturned Jeep, and burned to death.