Over break, I couldn't help but muse over all of the things that make my home city of Boston special to me: The Zakim Bridge, Newbury Street, the Charles River, and, especially, the North End. I feel an extra sense of Boston Pride as I traverse the narrow streets of the North End. The neighborhood's Italian-American establishments—restaurants, churches—are elements of Boston that speak to my identity.
On Christmas morning, my family, along with my Italian grandparents, feasts on our traditional post-present-opening breakfast: homemade fried dough, an Italian sausage coil, dirty scrambled eggs, and fresh fruit (which, honestly, is trivial to the other greasy breakfast goods). At our table, there is powdered sugar, maple syrup, and molasses to top the fried dough. Every year, my grandmother is the only person who uses the molasses. That's just the way Grammy—and many other grandmas—likes to sweeten her confections.
As I watch Grammy spoon molasses onto her dough, I mull over the dark brown goo's slow, sugary, sticky, and entirely destructive nature.
Yes, destructive. On January 15, 1919, a giant storage tank of molasses exploded, releasing 2.3 millions of gallons of the dark brown goo into the streets of Boston. As it poured into the North End, the wave of molasses was estimated to be 30 feet high and moving at 35 mph. The Great Molasses Flood killed 21 people, injured 150 others, and destroyed 14 buildings collectively valued at about a half a million dollars.
Clean-up in the aftermath of the flood was, to say the least, sticky. It took weeks for crews to clear away the debris. The molasses was impervious to freshwater, so crewmen used salt water to thin out the liquid and let it flow into the Boston Harbor.
What exactly caused the three-year-old tank to burst is still hotly debated amongst historians. However, historians mainly agree upon a few contributing factors. The tank had precarious constructs, shuddering and grumbling each time it was filled with a new shipment. Increasingly, the sticky liquid trickled out of the tank's seams. Finally, January 15th was an unseasonably warm day, likely causing the steel tank to expand beyond its structural limits.
Outside of a scholarly context, I am always struck by how little discussion there is about the molasses flood. I first learned about the flood in 4th grade when I read Joshua's Song for a book report. My mind was blown. Why hadn't I heard about the Great Molasses Flood until then? Even as I grew older and learned more about the history of Boston and, at large, American history, the only other time I heard the flood being discussed was during a duck boat tour I took around the Boston Harbor.
Why doesn't everyone know about the tidal wave of molasses that swallowed the streets of Boston? It's a bizarre historical event that implicates a certain sticky, seemingly inconspicuous, dark brown goo lurking at the back of your grandma's kitchen cabinet. To this day, molasses can, and does, manifest itself in our daily lives—especially if you're from Boston. Legend has it that on hot summer days in the city, you can still smell the molasses that has concretized in the cobblestone streets of the North End.
Boston's a sweet city, and its Great Molasses Flood is too definitive to go unrecognized.