|Clarke at Hanover St. in Boston's North End about 1893-courtesy of the photo archives Boston Public Library|
They didn't live there long. Michael moved the family across the Charles River to Charlestown and died in 1913. By the time our story takes place in 1919 the neighborhood was largely Italian immigrants. Michael's widow was in Everett with her daughter and my grandmother, grandfather and their family were living in Charlestown. But I tell this story as an illustration of what happened in immigrant neighborhoods in many cities at this time where there were industries side-by-side with poor housing and little regulation to protect the residents.
The story actually began before the first World War when the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company began work on a very large tank on the waterfront on Commercial Street in the North End. The company planned to house large amounts of imported molasses awaiting shipment to its distillery to be turned into explosives. Right from the beginning, the enormous tank was cursed. It was put up quickly, with substandard sheet metal, it was never properly tested and when problems became evident, the company covered them up. Molasses ran down the sides of the tank inviting the poor neighborhood children to collect it in buckets. The company painted the tank rust brown to disguise the leaks. Workers heard shrieks and moans coming from inside the tank. People standing near the tank reported feeling the sides of the tank pulsing with the fermentation and gases inside. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
On January 15, 1919, disaster happened. The tank failed in a spectacular way and all at once. Rivets shot like artillery fire, metal panels buckled and an explosion of 2.3 million gallons of molasses created a 15 foot tidal wave on Commercial Street. It slammed into buildings, cellars, people and animals burying everything in its path. A section of the sheet metal sliced through the supports of the elevated train track, collapsing it. Only quick thinking saved two operating trains from coming down with it.
|The arrows point to the tank and the former Cooke home. the dots outline the extent of the molasses flood|
These pictures are from the archives of the Boston Public Library. They tell the story best.
|An overview of the area immediately after the disaster|
|Fireman attempting to rescue people- the Cloughty house, in the background was directly across the street from the tank. Maria Cloughty was crushed instantly|
|the collapsed train track with a combination of molasses and sea water underneath|
It took weeks of cleanup with salt water and fire hoses. That part of the North End was never the same. Today, the land is a park and ball field. They say that even today, on a warm summer day, you can smell molasses on Commercial Street. A lawsuit ensued, of course, and the company tried to pin the incident on dynamite planted by anarchists. They were not successful and damages were awarded. Cold comfort to those who lost their means of support or lived in pain the rest of their lives.
The Great Molasses Flood has become a piece of Boston history, albeit a rather bizarre one. It was well documented in Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo. Laws were eventually strengthened to protect the public, but it was the court case that had the most lasting effect as Puleo points out in this video.
What brought this topic to mind was an explosion at an industrial plant in the middle of a residential neighborhood- right here in Houston. Some things just don't change.