NOSTALGIA: A treacle tsunami... and a catalogue of catastrophe

Radio signals move at the speed of light. It might not seem like that when you’re trying to download something from the internet, but they do.

It’s no wonder then, that these days information and descriptions of any given event are spread as quickly through electronic media, as a blancmange hitting a fan!

However, there’s a simple truth regarding the first world war. Apart from folk caught up in combat or its immediate grisly aftermath, hardly anyone in Great Britain (or anywhere else) knew exactly what was going on ‘Over there’ – or that the consequences were so horrific. True!... Some of the inhabitants of the south coast of England could hear the gunfire from across the English Channel, but they had no way of knowing who exactly was firing at whom, or what the outcome was.

Lack of communication and strict censorship meant the fog of war was extremely thick during those years. It was a fog so thick it blotted out news regarding a lot of other catastrophes. ‘Collateral damage’ meant that ‘unfortunate incidents’, having only indirect associations with ‘the Great War’ were hardly, if at all, reported at the time. Catastrophic events that would make headline news for weeks in peacetime were consigned to a few column inches under the weight of war stories. ‘Collateral damage’, spectacular events which, to the most part are now completely forgotten!

Events in human history, even the most cataclysmic ones, are like the ground in the path of a searchlight beam. At one moment the event at the centre of attention is glaringly bright, bleaching out everything around it, and then the spotlight moves on. Yesterday’s headlines fade into the shadows.

Eventually, even momentous occasions, events that ‘will be remembered forever!’ are completely forgotten! They are soon consigned to the darkest corners of the black halls of time.

That may all sound very pompous and heavy, so before getting on to forgotten events that occurred during the first world war, and to explain what was meant, here’s an example of an almost forgotten, ‘heavy event’ that occurred because of the requirements of the Great War. The hostilities had ceased but ‘The Purity Distilling Company’ of Boston Massachussetts, USA had, and was still making an extremely healthy profit from them!

Legend has it that after nearly100 years, the sweet acrid scent of molasses can still be faintly detected in the hot air of a Boston summer night!

Ethanol is a naughty but nice substance that has the ability to blow your head off in a variety of ways.

It is the basis of loads of things (a scientific term!) from alcohol to petrol, from rum to rocket fuel.

During The first world war it was used in the production of explosives, and one of the key ingredients used in the manufacture of ethanol was molasses.

‘Molasses’ is refined from sugar cane. If you pour it over your porridge from a tin, it’s called ‘Black Treacle’, if it’s used industrially as part of commercial sugar production, it’s called molasses.

It was January 1919, only two months after the end of World War I, and the weather around the city of Boston had been erratic to say the least.

The previous day had been a cold two degrees fahrenheit, but by the 15th, the temperature had soared to a daytime high of over 40 degrees (−17 to 5.0 °C )

Towering over the old buildings near Keany Square, at 529 Commercial Street in the bustling north end area of the city, was a monstrous metal silo.

The huge, 58-ft-high tank was owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIAC), of which the ‘Purity Distilling Company’ (PDC) was a subsidiary.

Since its construction in 1915, the gargantuan metal barrel, containing some nine-and-a-half million litres of liquid molasses, had been a source of wonder for children but a niggling concern for adults.

Considering the events to come, Arthur Jell, treasurer of the PDC, had an unfortunate and darkly ironic surname. Jell, somewhat of an American ‘Del-Boy’, had realised the potential profit for the USIAC in its production of explosives for the Allied war effort. Due to rumours circulating of the impending ‘Volstead Act’, the infamous ‘18th Amendment’ with its ‘Prohibition’ of all alcoholic drink’, Old Arthur predicted a vast new source of revenue from a clandestine but lucrative booze production.

Realising the need for the raw materials, he had paid for a shipload of molasses to be sent from Cuba. Unfortunately for Jell, he hadn’t got anywhere to put his ocean of incoming goop investment. With nowhere to store the stuff, there was real danger of his precious, and, as mentioned, pre-paid cargo, being dumped into Boston Harbor by the ship’s crew. (Boston Harbor already had a history of cargo being dumped into it!)

Jell commissioned the Hammond Iron Works Co.to construct the mighty tank, but in the December of 1915, over 20 inches of snow fell on Boston, and building work was seriously delayed. Jell was facing the imminent arrival of his treacle with only a half-finished tank to put it in.

Building work was accelerated with scant regard given to matters of safety. With an almost complete absence of building regulations, work was finally completed. Jell did obtain a genuine permit for its construction, but that was only for the structure’s foundations. No building inspector was ever troubled upon to give a report, which as events were to prove, was an ill conceived money-saving gamble!

However, Jell did have a pressure test conducted by filling the tank with water.

That is to say, he had the 58ft structure ‘filled’ with six inches of water, and was relieved to see there appeared to be no leaks.

The molasses arrived, and went into the tank. Over the next two years more and more heavy, viscous treacle was added until, on January 15, 1919, a mere two months after the end of the war, it was almost completely full.

Since the first load of molasses had been added, some of the worried workers had heard ominous rumblings coming from within the metal monster, and had noticed sticky brown liquid leaking out from around the metal rivets and seams.

Others swore the whole thing pulsated and groaned like some sort of ominous, gastric-troubled creature.

Children regularly feasted on the free sweet stuff, using sticks to scoop up the treacle that oozed out and formed puddles around its 240ft circumference.

To allay the fears of anyone noticing the worrying brown molasses’ stains, ingenious old Arthur ordered the whole tank to be painted brown!

Just before 12.30 pm on that mild and sunny January 15, 1919, city police patrolman Frank McManus had just finished filing a routine report from a telephone control box.

Suddenly he heard what he thought was the rumbling of distant artillery and the closer immediate sound of a machine gun.

He spun around towards the molasses tank at the end of the street in time to see what had caused the noise.

Not the sound of machine-gun bullets, but of rivets and steel splinters exploding from the sides of the ruptured tank.

A build-up of pressure caused by the fermenting and expanding gas inside the top of the silo caused the structure to fail at its most vulnerable point, the corroded rivets and weakened seams at its base!

The metal tower had split, collapsed in on itself and had sent a 30ft-high treacle tsunami in all directions.

The air pressure produced by the oncoming molasses felled humans and horses alike and overturned vehicles.

The dark, glutenous tide killed 21 people and injured 150, many of whom later succumbed to infection. Countless dogs and horses were crushed or drowned, buildings destroyed, and vehicles swept into the harbour.

The adjoining elevated steel railway gantry was buckled out of shape, a scheduled passenger train came to a grinding halt only feet from the destroyed track.

You’d think the memory of such a bizarre accident would still be common knowledge, but, ‘Never heard of it!’ is the usual response from most folk when it’s mentioned.

Unless of course you live in the north end of Boston, know your history and get a faint whiff of treacle on hot summer nights.

To be continued...