A Sticky Situation: The Navy and the Great Molasses Flood

By Alex Hays, Communication and Outreach Division

“Sailors Do Heroic Work in Aiding Victims,” declared the front page of The Boston Daily Globe on Jan. 16, 1919. On the previous day, these U.S. Navy Sailors witnessed and played a key role in the recovery efforts of one of America’s most bizarre disasters: Boston’s Great Molasses Flood.

The front page of The Boston Daily Globe on Jan. 16, 1919. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Microtext Department.

 

In 1915, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA) built a 50-foot wide, 90-foot tall molasses tank on Commercial Street in Boston’s North End, which was one of the most densely populated sections of the city. The tank was capable of holding more than 2-million gallons of molasses. World War I had broken out in Europe in 1914 and, although the United States was not yet directly involved, American merchants were supplying many of the munitions used during the war. USIA used molasses to produce industrial alcohol for munitions. Over the next few years, USIA workers and locals reported that the tank rumbled and leaked frequently. On Jan. 12, 1919, the steamer Miliero arrived at the Boston Harbor and pumped 600,000 gallons of warm molasses into the holding tank. The warm molasses reacted with the cold molasses already in the tank accelerating fermentation and increasing the pressure on the tank’s already weak walls.

On Jan. 15, 1919, U.S. Navy Gunner’s Mate Robert Henry Johnston was about to sit down for lunch aboard Bessie J., a coal barge floating in the Boston Harbor, when he heard a loud rumble and began yelling at his shipmates as the molasses tank burst. On board USS Nantucket, a gunboat and training vessel for midshipmen that was moored at North End Pier, Lt. Cmdr. Howard G. Copeland also heard the rumbling and watched the tank collapse. 2.3 million gallons of molasses surged down the streets of Boston’s North End in waves traveling 35 miles per hour that reached at least 25-feet in height. The surge destroyed houses and swept up railroad cars. The steel supports of the city’s elevated train snapped under the onslaught of the sticky substance. The molasses waves also tossed people, including city employee Patrick Breen, into the harbor where the water temperature hovered just above freezing.

Navy coal barge Bessie J. Courtesy of NHHC.

 

Immediately, Lt. Cmdr. Copeland issued a call to quarters, and 116 Sailors from USS Nantucket rushed to the accident. After posting a few armed guards to keep bystanders away from the wreckage, the Sailors started digging through the rubble to search for survivors. Molasses covered everything and, within a few minutes, the Sailors acquired a sticky and copper-colored coating. Sailors from Bessie J. joined in and waded through the knee-deep molasses while searching for survivors. By the time the Boston police and firefighters arrived on the scene, the Sailors had recovered six bodies from a collapsed building and pulled more than 20 wounded individuals from the wreckage.

Hearing cries for help, Sailors from USS Nantucket moved toward a ruined building in the middle of North End Park. Before the disaster, Elizabeth O’Brien and Mary Keenan were staying in the second level apartment of a small building. Amidst a deafening roar and a torrent of molasses, their building was swept off its foundation and the wreckage was deposited in the park. A Sailor climbed through a dormer window and discovered the women. After being removed from the debris, both women went to the hospital. Sailors from USS Nantucket also fished out city employee Patrick Breen from the harbor, who suffered from pneumonia, broken ribs, and a leg injury.

Sailors work with firefighters during the recovery efforts. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

 

Sailors survey the wreckage of the molasses tank. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

 

Recovery efforts continued and a steady stream of ambulances, including vehicles from the Naval Hospital in Chelsea, Massachusetts, began transporting the wounded to hospitals. Two tug boats and a patrol boat crossed the river from the Boston Navy Yard and brought some of the injured on board USS Mount Vernon and to the Naval Dispensary, where the Medical Corps stood ready to assist. Under the leadership of Chief Storekeeper Thomas Slattery, Sailors from the Quartermaster Department at Battery Wharf in the North End tended to the wounded at the site of the disaster. Capt. William R. Rush, Commandant of the Boston Navy Yard, offered additional manpower to Boston’s government, but Mayor Andrew J. Peters declined because the aid was, in his words, “not necessary.”

Devastation caused by the tank’s rupture, which was located near the center of this photo. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department.

 

The flood claimed 21 lives and injured at least 150 people. Among the injured was Charles Bower, a Sailor on USS Starling at the Boston Navy Yard. The Boston Harbor took on a brown hue for days after the disaster and the molasses slowly spread as onlookers and recovery workers tracked it around the entire city. USIA quickly blamed anarchists for the attack and claimed that an explosion, rather than a weak tank, caused the disaster. In a civil case that took years to reach a verdict, USIA was found liable for the tank’s collapse and paid out $628,000 in damages (roughly $9 million today).

Today, a plaque in Boston’s North End is the only record left of the molasses waves that crashed through the area 100 years ago, although some locals claim that you can still catch whiffs of molasses on hot summer days. The Boston Navy Yard closed in 1974, although USS Constitution, a witness to the molasses disaster, remains moored there. If you stand on “Old Ironsides’” spar deck and look across the water, you can imagine the destruction witnessed by Sailors at the Navy Yard on Jan. 15, 1919.

The plaque is located on Commercial Street in Boston’s North End. Courtesy of Margherita M. Desy, NHHC Detachment Boston.

Sources:

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

Collections from the Boston Public Library

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