“Dark Tide” by Stephen Puleo

Next Thursday (July 7) at 6:30 pm, the Pollard Memorial Library nonfiction book club will meet in the library’s Community Room to discuss “Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919” by Stephen Puleo. The book has been around for a while – it was published in 2003 – and everyone I know who has read it has very much enjoyed it. With the book club providing motivation, I just finished reading “Dark Tide” and have joined the ranks of its fans.

In 1915, the United States Industrial Alcohol corporation built a huge steel storage tank along the waterfront in Boston’s North End. Fifty feet high and ninety feet wide, the tank could hold 2.5 million gallons of liquid. And the liquid it was intended to hold was molasses, a substance more prominent in days past than it is now. USAI wasn’t baking gingerbread cookies with the molasses; it was making “industrial alcohol” which was a key ingredient in the manufacture of things that blew up such as dynamite and smokeless gunpowder. With World War One well underway, there was great demand for industrial alcohol which was distilled from molasses in an East Cambridge facility owned by USAI. By storing large quantities of molasses a short train ride away, USAI could maximize its output (and its profits) and minimize its costs.

The tank was built quickly with little professional or governmental oversight. The author contends that it was located in the North End which even by then was mostly the habitat of Italian immigrants, because those immigrants were very hesitant to get involved in the political process and therefore lacked neighborhood advocates at city hall. Rushed to completion and inadequately tested, the tank immediately began leaking molasses in such quantities that neighborhood children could scoop up bucketfuls to bring home as a supplement to the family food supply. To quell growing concerns about this leakage, USAI had the tank painted brown to mask the flow of molasses and twice had boiler-makers re-caulk the seams of the tank.

The stopgap measures were inadequate and one day in the winter of 1919, the tank let go, sending a 30 foot high flood of molasses surging through the streets, crushing buildings and vehicles and drowning men and animals. In all 21 people were killed and hundreds were badly injured.

The latter part of the book is about the civil trial that took place, with an early class-action suit of injured residents versus USAI which maintained that the tank was sabotaged by anarchists who were active throughout the United States at the time and whose calling card was large explosions. The hearing officer (appointed by the court to reach a preliminary decision on liability and damages) found for the victims. Rather than risk a jury trial, USAI settled.

Puleo does an excellent job describing the details of the construction and operation of the tank, the problems with it, its collapse, the destruction it caused, and the subsequent legal proceedings. Much of the book, however, is devoted to the anarchist movement and to national US politics. I suppose this was necessary to put the USAI defense into some kind of historical context, but that might have been done a bit more succinctly. Still, anyone with an interest in local history should read this book – and should attend the meeting of the book club.

One last thing: before the liability hearing, a judge was appointed to conduct an inquest to assess any criminal liability. While he found none and blamed the company for shoddy gross carelessness, he also criticized the people of Boston in terms that seem to jump out of today’s news. Here’s what he said:

The chief blame rests upon the public itself. This single accident has cost more in material damage alone than all the supposed economics in the building department. Laws are cheap of passage, costly of enforcement. They do not execute themselves. A public which, with one eye on the tax rate, provides itself with an administrative equipment 50 percent qualified, has no right to complain that it does not get a 100 percent product — and so far as it accepts political influence as the equivalent of scientific positions which demand such attainment in a high degree, so long it must expect breakdowns in its machinery.

One Response to “Dark Tide” by Stephen Puleo

  1. Sean T says:

    That’s a great quote! And a great summary of this astonishing local event. Thank you for the PML Non-Ficiton book club plug. I’m glad the club inspired you to read Dark Tide and look forward to our discussion next week.