Molasses > Gas > Hazmat: What Have We Learned?

by Guild Nichols

January 15th marked the day ninety-two years ago when a torrent of molasses flooded Boston’s North End waterfront killing 21 people and injuring 150. Two years later, the State Legislature voted to avert still another potential disaster – by removing a massive illuminating gas tank on Prince Street in the heart of the neighborhood – that threatened the lives of tens of thousands of residents.

Now, nine decades later, the City government and State Legislature are confronted with another pending disaster – the threat posed by truckloads of explosive materials, hazardous chemicals and toxic wastes that are transported daily through the North End, the City center and Boston’s financial district. Are there lessons to be learned over these past 92 years and, if so, what are they?

Sticky Business

Although the “Great Molasses Flood” entered into Boston folklore almost a century ago, its full historical dimension has only recently been told with the publication of Dark Tide (2003) by Stephen Puleo.

As Puleo documents in his account of the disaster and the subsequent judicial investigation, the tank’s collapse was not the object of a terrorist attack (read: anarchist sabotage), but was due to structural weakness in its original construction. U.S. Industrial Alcohol (USIA) had built the tank hastily with inferior steel plates. When it leaked from the seams, the company failed to shore up the structure.

In the final analysis and after five years of incriminating testimony, USIA was found to be liable for the disaster and agreed to an out-of-court settlement of $628,000 or the equivalent of more than $60 million today – still a relatively small sum given the company’s extreme negligence and culpability.

The Gassy

Just as this molasses investigation was getting underway in late 1919, neighborhood heads and furor turned to “The  Gassy” where a five-story gas holder tank (called a “gasometer”) stood at the corner of Prince and Snow Hill streets.

“The huge gasometer in the North End which overshadows nearby houses crowded with persons who fear it will collapse like the molasses tank at North End Park.” (Boston Traveler, February 11, 1919)

Built and operated by the Boston Consolidated Gas Company, the massive North End tank was just one of 18 other gasometers located in Boston. And had it not been for the January 1919 molasses disaster, it is possible that community concern about the dangers posed by such a lethal industrial behemoth in its midst might have been slower to awaken. As it was, it took the forceful words of a local Italian newspaper editor and an outspoken 32-year-old lawyer (and future Superior Court judge) to galvanize public opinion.

I am grateful to Victor Brogna who has shared with me several long-lost articles from LA GAZZETTA DEL MASSACHUSETTS (the forerunner of today’s North End POST-GAZETTE). The first story appeared just after the molasses disaster under the headline: “Il Sentimento Italiano Per La Rimozione Del Gassometro Dal N. End” (“Italian Feeling for the Removal of the North End Gasometer”).

James V. Donnaruma, founder of this Italian language newspaper, along with Vincent Brogna from Montefalcione, a recent law school graduate from Boston University, played instrumental roles in shaping public opinion for the removal of the gas tank from the North End.

By early February 1st, emotions had come to a boil. As the Boston Traveler reported, “On Saturday the citizens choked the streets of the North End. They hired bands and were planning to storm the State House and City Hall to protest. With the help of the police, the leaders dispersed the thousands and the parade was sidetracked for the time being.”

Brogna and Donnamura decided to organize a protest committee –“Comizio di Protesta Per Rimuovere La Gas Tank Dal North End” – and called for a public meeting to be held on Sunday, February 9th, at the North Bennet Street Industrial School. “The school was packed to the doors with protesting citizens and the movement against the gas tank gained tremendous momentum,” the Boston Traveler reported.

Donnaruma said, “Everyone down here is bitterly against the tank remaining. It is in the very heart of the residential section. We have 20,000 signatures of protest today and they are coming in with every mail.”

Brogna added, “I believe the chances are very small that such a tank will explode, but such a thing is remotely possible. If that element of possibility exists and the people are terrorized, there is only one thing to do, and that is to have it removed to a point of safety. If anything did happen as things are today, it would wreck the entire district.”

He concluded: “Aside from the possible danger, the tank is a great nuisance.  It is extremely noisy when it is filling, and besides, a terrible odor is arising from it … Who was there whoever expected that a harmless tank of molasses would blow up?  Manmade things are not infallible.”

W. A. Wood, chief engineer of the Boston Consolidated Gas Company, said that the chances of a gas holder exploding were “practically nil.” “While this particular tank is a newer one, we have one tank in that locality which has been there practically one hundred years without the slightest kind of an accident … The risk is so near nothing that the gas company does not even insure such tanks.”

[Note:  Seven years later, on November 14, 1927, a huge cylindrical gasometer – the largest in the world at that time – containing 5 million cubic feet of natural gas, exploded in the heart of an industrial zone in Pittsburgh, PA leaving 28 people dead, hundreds injured, and a square-mile of devastation.]

“Gasometers” (c. 1930) by Cyril E. Power (1872-1951), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

As a result of these and other public meetings, two bills were introduced in the Legislature, one calling for the immediate withdrawal of all gas from the North End tank and the other for the removal of all gas tanks “within 100 rods [1650 feet] of a dwelling house”. This latter House Bill No. 1891 further stipulated that “any person, firm or corporation who violates the provisions of [this bill] shall be punished by a fine of one thousand dollars for each day that such violation continues.”

Lessons Learned

One of the primary lessons learned from the molasses disaster was the need for stronger regulations with respect to construction safety standards, which in turn influenced the adoption of engineering certification laws nationwide. The investigation marked, as Puleo notes, a “symbolic turning point in the country’s attitudes toward Big Business” and the need for new governmental regulations to safeguard the public. The events also highlighted the central importance of active citizen involvement in matters of community concern.

The molasses disaster had literally “hit” the North End without warning, yet served to activate the neighborhood as no prior event had ever done. In the debate over “The Gassy”, community leaders played a number of crucial roles: shaping the public debate about removal of the gas tank, informing the community about its dangers and publicizing the extreme seriousness of the threat. And by capturing the attention of the general news media, they succeeded in transforming what was inherently a local neighborhood issue into matters of serious State concern.

In this way, they also succeeded in restoring some measure of public faith in the political process. By reaching out to elected and appointed City officials and to the State legislature, they sought to counter prevailing concerns that economic and political power rested too much in the hands of too few.

How we confront today’s issues surrounding the transportation of hazardous materials throughout our City (Hazmat) and the conveyance of liquid natural gas (LNG) through our harbor will depend upon: our learning the lessons from the past; our abilities to surmount special, narrow political interests; the strength, character and commitment of our elected leaders; and, above all else, an informed, concerned and active citizen involvement.