So How Slow Is Molasses in January?
IT WAS UNSEASONABLY warm in Boston on Wednesday, January 15, 1919. Forty-three degrees above zero, to be exact. But during endless court hearings carried on later, it was determined that temperature played no role in what occurred that day in the low-lying section of Commercial Street, between Copps Hill and North End Park. That’s where a 58-foot tank filled with no less than 2.5 million gallons of molasses stood, just behind the Boston and Worcester freight terminal.
At about 12:30 p.m. that day, the tank (due to faulty construction, as was eventually determined) split wide open, creating a tidal wave of molasses. Men, women, children, and a number of horses were engulfed. High above the scene of disaster, an elevated train crowded with passengers whizzed by the crumbling tank just as the molasses broke loose. The flood tore off the entire front of the Clougherty house and snapped off the steel supports of the elevated train structure. The train had barely gone by when the trestle snapped and the tracks sagged almost to street level.
Fifteen dead were found before the sun went down that night, and six other bodies were recovered the next day. Many injured were taken to area hospitals.
Some years ago, I talked to a man who knew the owner of the small Boston welding company that had submitted the lowest bid for cutting up the ruptured tank and cleaning up the mess. The owner deeply regretted winning the job. Not only did he lose money, but the work was a nightmare. Clothes, gloves, torches, hoses — any sort of equipment — were coated with a layer of sticky molasses within minutes of workers being on the job. Inside the broken tank, molasses had crystallized into a 4-inch layer of sugar, which burned with a thick, choking smoke when contacted by acetylene torches. In the spring, flies swarmed to the area, getting inside workers’ helmets and goggles.
The only good to come out of the Great Molasses Flood, as it is known, was that it sort of disproved the old New England (and elsewhere, perhaps) expression, “Slow as molasses in January.” It had, of course, always been a colorful way of saying this or that was moving pretty darn slowly. Well, after January 15, 1919, that had to change a little. You see, one of those injured in the disaster, a William Ryan, was working across the street from the tank when it collapsed. When he saw the heavy brown wave approaching, he tried to outrun it to safety, but it caught up with him and he was dragged down into the ooze. I’m told that the fastest sprinters barely exceed 25 mph, and Ryan, even in his fear, was not likely to be faster. So I think we can assume molasses runs somewhere around 25 to 30 mph in January.
And that’s not all that slow.