The Great Molasses Flood: Boston, 1919
Deborah Kops, author
Deborah Kops is the author of more than a dozen nonfiction children’s books, including Zachary Taylor: America’s 12th President, Scholastic Kid’s Almanac, and her Wild Birds of Prey series. She lives in Westford, Massachusetts.
Read more about Deborah.
- New York Public Library's 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
- Bulletin Blue Ribbon from the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
- NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People
Imagine a 40-foot wall of molasses turning a harborside neighborhood upside down.
It was a hopeful time in Boston. The worst of the Spanish influenza was over, World War I had just ended and Babe Ruth had helped the Red Sox win the World Series the previous fall. But on January 15, 1919, in Boston's North End, on a sunny, warm day, the molasses tank in the neighborhood blew. More than 2,300,000 gallons of molasses, weighing 13,000 tons, flowed down the street, uplifting houses, twisting railroad tracks and killing 21 people. Fallen elevated train tracks, dead horses, collapsed buildings and crushed cars made the areas look as though a tornado had come through. The smell of molasses in the neighborhood didn't fade until 1995, though the memory of the event has. Using firsthand testimony from the 40-volume transcript from Dorr v. U.S. Industrial Alcohol, the hearings that followed the event, Kops has done a fine job of resurrecting the story and recreating the day through third-person stories of the actual players. Had she retained some of the first-person accounts she may have lent her narrative greater immediacy, but it is nevertheless and intriguing read. A useful map, abundant archival photographs and sidebars offering historical context complement the lively prose.
A fascinating account of a truly bizarre disaster.
This book chronicles the catastrophic events resulting from the collapse of a large tank containing molasses in the North End neighborhood of Boston in 1919. The straightforward account centers on workers and area residents who either perished in the flood or miraculously survived. Those involved in the lengthy court case that followed also figure prominently in the narrative. Background information about the neighborhood, as well as the political activity that led to some of the speculations about the cause of the calamity, is expanded in numerous lengthy sidebars. A select number of well-placed archival photographs show the damage caused by the surge with the cleanup and rescue crews sloshing around in the aftermath. The combination of the sepia-toned photographs, the use of brown to highlight the chapter headings, and the choice of cream-colored paper gives this book a rich, elegant quality while staying consistent with the subject matter. Fictionalized accounts of the molasses flood can be found in Joan Hiatt Harlow's Joshua's Song and Blair Lent's picture book Molasses Flood.
School Library Journal
On January 15, 1919, a two-million-gallon holding tank filled with molasses exploded, flooding Boston's North End near the port. In all, 21 people died in the disaster, and around 50 were injured. The sticky flood swamped the area, and cleanup proved difficult until it was discovered that seawater seemed to break it up. At that point, the judicious use of a fire boat aided the effort. Even though all the molasses was eventually gone, the smell persisted until 1995. This briskly paced recounting of the disaster focuses on the human element—the people involved, their lives disrupted and never the same thereafter. Covering not only the Molasses Flood, but the impact of Prohibition on businesses and the anarchist movement, the engaging narrative paints a very different picture of the Roaring Twenties than is typical. Of special interest, given the current national obsession with terrorism, is the number of deadly explosions set off by anarchists along the Eastern seaboard between 1919 and 1923. In a satisfying conclusion, the auditor pointed his finger firmly at the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, the owners of the tank, claiming that the company had done a poor job of building the tank and that it could withstand neither the weight of the molasses nor the pressure of the gas from fermentation. While this is an excellent study of the problems of unregulated industry, readership is nonetheless problematic. While there may be social studies tie-ins, options for selling the title seem few. A fine, if slightly obscure, addition on a topic not previously covered in book form fro this age range.
Anita Silvey's Book-A-Day Almanac
This week marks Children’s Book Week, a nationwide celebration of children’s book. The Almanac, of course, celebrates Children’s Books every day of the year! But Children’s Book Week gives me a chance to reflect on what’s new in books for children.
One of the things I have noticed this spring is how many first-rate natural disaster books have appeared. I suppose that is inevitable with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Besides Titanic books, Sally M. Walker has given us a thrilling account of the Halifax Explosion of 1917 in Blizzard of Glass. And our book of the day by Deborah Kops, The Great Molasses Flood, takes a look at one of my favorite disasters, which took place in Boston in 1919.
Kops begins her account with exactly the right description: “Of all the disasters that have occurred in the United States, the Great Molasses Flood in Boston was one of the most bizarre.” How right she is. Imagine going out in the yard, or walking to school, hearing a loud explosion, and then finding yourself confronted with a wave of brown molasses— “that dark-brown sweet-and-sour liquid that sticks to everything.”
Kops sets the stage historically—the Spanish flu, Babe Ruth helps the Boston Red Sox win the World Series, and Prohibition on the horizon—and then she skillfully brings readers to lunch hour on January 15, 1919, when the huge molasses tank in Boston’s North End exploded. A wave of 2,300,000 gallons of molasses crested fifty feet high and swept away everything in its path including about a hundred men, women, and children at a speed close to 35 miles per hour. As the sticky substance made its way through the city it uprooted buildings, train lines, and the lives and property of Boston citizens.
Kops has effectively used original photographs from the event to show the story of Boston’s destruction; she scanned newspaper accounts and archival records of the trials that followed the disaster. Through these primary sources she brings readers right into the action, describing what it felt like and how it appeared to the citizens of the city. She does for the Molasses Flood what Walter Lord did for the Titanic in A Night to Remember.
For classroom or book group discussion purposes, the most important part of the book comes in the final chapters. Here Kops deals with the issues of industrial mismanagement. What do industries owe citizens for damage to life and property?
While reading this beautifully designed book, at one point I had to look out my window to make sure that no wave of dark brown could be seen. I am happy to report that Boston appears to be molasses-free this morning. But I am really grateful for narrative nonfiction like The Great Molasses Flood, which so vividly re-creates the events of another era.
Here’s a passage from The Great Molasses Flood: Martin Clougherty, the owner of the Pen and Pencil, was in his bed rubbing the sleep from his eyes. His sister, Teresa, had just awakened him and was still in his bedroom. Suddenly, she let out a scream. “Something terrible has happened to the molasses tank!” she cried. Martin shoved the curtains aside and saw a murky liquid swirling outside. He gave his sister a hug and said, “Stay here.” Before he could investigate the situation, he heard his mother shriek in the kitchen. A moment later Martin went sailing through the air.
A wave of molasses had lifted the Cloughertys’ house right off its foundation and pushed it across Commercial Street toward the elevated train. The house smashed against the columns supporting the tracks. The next thing Martin Clougherty knew, he was in a dark sea surrounded by pieces of his house, and he could not stand up. He was facing the ocean. Had he fallen in? he wondered. Clougherty managed to get his nose out of the goo and took some deep breaths. Something was floating on the surface, something he could use for a raft. He tried to swim toward it, but the dark sea was too thick, and he couldn’t move. Luckily a wave pushed the raft right in his direction. It was a bed, and Clougherty, who was still in his pajamas, climbed on top.
He looked around. His neighborhood had suddenly become a strange world. Sticking up out of the heavy liquid was a limp hand. Could it be his sister? As he pulled the body up onto the raft, he saw that it really was Teresa. And thank goodness, she was alive.
Kops documents the horror created by a tank, containing 2,319,525 gallons of molasses, exploding in Boston’s North End in 1919. It took years to settle the claims of the people involved. No one appeared to be responsible. Hugh Ogden, the acting judge, persevered to come up with a fair settlement. Photos and first person narratives add to the book’s drama. A little-known part of history, but one that clearly demonstrates human nature at its best and worst. The smell finally faded in 1995!
Library Media Connection
Deborah Kops tells the story of Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919 in this account of a lesser-known event. Part chronology and part biography, this exciting piece of nonfiction brings together the people affected and the timeline of events leading up to the disaster, disaster management, and the communal, legal, and political aftermath. A massive tank of molasses burst and flooded the city with a giant wave of sticky goo. The greater story explains the devastation the flood caused, from twisting steel to moving entire homes to death from drowning and suffocation, leaving the reader engaged in the story of human suffering, resilience, and recovery. The author presents different perspectives of responsibility for this disaster, including conspiracy theories, legal arguments, and stories from contemporary Bostonians. The account was compiled from primary source documents, including reproductions of historical photographs and transcripts from the molasses flood hearings.
NC Teacher Stuff
On January 15, 1919, a molasses truck at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. —Commemorative plaque on Commercial Street in Boston
It was an unusually warm day in January 1919. Workers were eating lunch while housewives were hanging laundry and children were playing. Standing out among the buildings on Commercial Street was a tank that held over 2.3 million gallons of molasses. Owned by the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA), this tank held the equivalent weight of 13,000 Fords. The molasses was going to be converted into rum. This needed to be done quickly as the 18th amendment was about to be ratified and Prohibition would rule the land. Laws banning alcoholic drinks would go into effect a year after ratification. In Chapter 1, you are introduced to many people who are going to be affected by the explosion of the tank. There is nothing abnormal about this day, but that is about to change. Between 12:30 and 12:40 p.m., the tank gave way and a wave of molasses came crashing down upon the buildings and other structures on the north end of Commercial Street. Deborah Kops presents the personal stories that make history come alive for children. You feel the heartache of nine year old Antonio DiStasio who, along with his older sister Maria and two friends, was trying to get a taste of the excess molasses that came from the tank. Antonio ended up losing his sister and one of his friends in this tragedy. Along with the personal stories, there is a mystery element to this narrative. How did the tank explode and how will acting judge Hugh Ogden rule in the civil case brought by the victims against USIA? You keep reading as the case unwinds because you want answers to these questions and that is what a good nonfiction read will accomplish. Two other features in The Great Molasses Flood enhance the reader's knowledge. Sepia toned photographs give you a sense of the setting and how the flood unfolded. Kops also added sections in several chapters to provide background knowledge for the reader. We learn about the anarchist movement of the early 20th century which could be connected to the issues of terrorism that are prevalent today. Other topics include women's suffrage and historical figures of the day.
The Great Molasses Flood would make for an interesting contrast to the Titanic tragedy of 1912. How were these two tragedies similar? Do we have similar tragedies today that are caused by human error? This is a fascinating account that will enliven your instruction of early 20th century history.
Page count: 112
7 1/2 x 10