Authors: Stephen Puleo
Your eyes smile, my heart dances
is the first full accounting of the Great Boston Molasses Flood. It was not simply a disaster that occurred on a mild January day in 1919, but rather a saga that spanned a decade, from the construction of the tank in 1915 through the conclusion of a huge civil lawsuit in 1925.
There are no other books on the subject, and little has been written on the ﬂood at all, save for a handful of magazine articles and newspaper retrospectives that have appeared sporadically through the years. A few works of children’s fiction allude to the event, but the story lines of these books generally focus on fun and adventure in a fanciful “world of molasses,” rather than depicting the event as the tragedy it was.
It is probably not surprising, then, that the disaster—an event that knocked Prohibition and the League of Nations out of the headlines—is little more than a footnote on the pages of America’s past. Even in Boston, the ﬂood today remains part of the city’s folklore, but not its heritage. A small plaque in the North End marks the site of the ﬂood (placed there by the Bostonian Society in the mid-1990s), and tourist trolleys slow down when approaching the area so the driver can point out the location. One of the converted World War II amphibious vehicles that transport tourists through the downtown streets and into the Charles River, part of Boston’s renowned “Duck Tours,” is named “Molly Molasses,” but most who learn about the city’s famous landmarks leave with little actual knowledge about the molasses ﬂood.
Beyond these references, the story of the ﬂood has remained elusive, surfacing occasionally in the folksy myth recounted by cab drivers and citizens alike that on hot summer days, for years after the ﬂood, one could still smell the sweet, sticky aroma of molasses.
There may be several reasons for this indifference.
One is that, in a city defined by so much compelling and pivotal history, from the founding of Plymouth Colony to the Battle of Bunker Hill, from the Abolitionist movement to John F. Kennedy, perhaps it is difficult to make room for an event in which ordinary people were affected most. No prominent people were killed in the molasses ﬂood, and the survivors did not go on to become famous; they were mostly immigrants and city workers who returned to their workaday lives, recovered from injuries, and provided for their families.
Another reason the ﬂood has never attained lofty historical significance may be because of its very essence—molasses. The substance itself gives the entire event an unusual, whimsical quality. Often, the first reaction of the uninformed when they hear the words “molasses ﬂood” is a raised eyebrow, maybe a restrained giggle, followed by the incredulous, “What, you’re serious? It’s really true?”
But perhaps the biggest reason the ﬂood has not claimed its proper place in Boston’s history is because, until this book, the story—if known at all—has been mistakenly viewed as an isolated incident, unconnected with larger trends in American history.
makes those connections.
I have done presentations about the molasses ﬂood to hundreds of people, and when they hear the
story, wrapped in its full historical context, they are almost always fascinated and anxious to delve more deeply into the topic. Afterward, the inevitable response is: “Why didn’t I know about this and where can I learn more?”
Undoubtedly, some of that interest comes from a visceral reaction to the disaster. The molasses ﬂood
a tragedy (twenty-one killed, 150 injured), it occurred in a great city, contained a “whodunit” element (why
the tank collapse?), spawned in its aftermath a true David vs. Goliath courtroom drama, and created a collection of heroes that saved lives that day and sought justice afterward. These are crucial pieces of any good story, elements that grip the imagination and fuel additional interest.
But the real power of the molasses ﬂood story is what it exemplifies and represents, not just to Boston but to America. Nearly every watershed issue the country was dealing with at the time—immigration, anarchists, World War I, Prohibition, the relationship between labor and Big Business, and between the people and their government—also played a part in the decade-long story of the molasses ﬂood. To understand the ﬂood is to understand America of the early twentieth century.
The ﬂood, therefore, was a microcosm of America, a dramatic event that encapsulated something much bigger, a lens through which to view the major events that shaped a nation.
That is why, when people hear snippets of the molasses ﬂood story, they invariably want to hear more.
That is why, finally, the full story needs to be told.
Illustration shows close-up view of molasses tank and waterfront area, including the way molasses ships docked and pumped their cargo through a pipeline into the tank. Configuration of surface-level spur tracks showed how molasses was transported from tank to USIA’s distilling plant in East Cambridge. The proximity of the Clougherty house to the tank and the overhead railroad tracks is also shown.
(Map by Sarah Gillis, adapted from map published in
May 15, 1919)