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Slow as molasses in January? Try 35 miles an hour. That’s how fast the syrup flowed when U.S. Industrial Alcohol’s gigantic molasses storage tank collapsed in Boston’s North End on Jan. 15, 1919. We may imagine an enormous brown blob slithering sluggishly along the waterfront, but the reality wasn’t nearly so whimsical. The tank was 50 feet tall, 90 feet in diameter, and filled to near capacity with 2.3 million gallons of molasses. At 12:45 p.m. on a busy, relatively warm Wednesday, it exploded, sending a crushing wave into the streets. Buildings were shattered or knocked off their foundations; cars were flung about like toys; steel train tracks were twisted like tin. At least 20 people were killed, 150 injured.
It had been an accident waiting to happen. During World War I, even before America joined the fray, there was a fortune to be made in the munitions business, and alcohol, which USIA distilled from molasses, was a crucial ingredient of a variety of high explosives. Competition was fierce, government protections scarce, and quick and dirty was the customary order of business. With Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, Stephen Puleo becomes the first writer to address the disaster at book length.
In this case, tragedy plus time equals oddity, but in an introduction that reads as though it came directly from his book proposal, Puleo promises to remove the flood from Believe It or Not territory and make it central to a period portrait of America back when the promises and pitfalls of unchecked industrialization were still fresh. It’s an ambitious plan for an incident that, though once front-page news, has come to be seen as a historical footnote rather than a pivotal event, and Puleo doesn’t quite pull it off. Still, even as he discounts “the folksy myth recounted by cab drivers and citizens alike that on hot summer days, for years after the flood, one could still smell the sweet, sticky aroma of molasses,” he doesn’t entirely disappoint readers drawn by the whiff of blackstrap.
Puleo structures the first two sections of his narrative (titled “A Monster in Our Midst” and “Waves of Terror”) like an Irwin Allen flick. First you meet the cast of characters: the helpless victims who little expect their fate, the staunch heroes who will leap to the rescue, the reckless villains who run the ship too hard or build the skyscraper too tall or, in this case, commission a mammoth tank with little thought to its safety, construct it from substandard parts, and ignore all evidence that it is not much sturdier than a house of cards.
Among others, there’s Martin Clougherty, the owner of a journalists’ pub who has seen his fortunes steadily improve and hopes to move his family out of the neighborhood. There’s Pasqualeno Iantosca, a 10-year-old boy who comes often with his friends to the tank to collect the molasses seeping from its seams. There’s George Layhe, a fireman stationed in the shadow of the tank, a husband and father of three. And there’s Isaac Gonzales, the tale’s Cassandra, whose obsessive nightmares drive him repeatedly back to the tank where he works to confirm that it still stands.
Gonzales risks his job by turning up unbidden in the office of his supervisor’s boss, USIA executive Arthur P. Jell, who commissioned the structure and oversaw its construction. Gonzales relates his fears, going so far as to dump huge flakes of rust he has collected from the tank on Jell’s desk. He isn’t fired, but he isn’t listened to, either. Jell twice has the tank recaulked before giving the order to have it repainted to make it harder to see the molasses running down its walls. Gonzales quits USIA in disgust and joins the Army. A few months later, the tank gives way.
Puleo feverishly lays out the scene, punctuating stories of survivors’ struggles with the reports of police revolvers as officers euthanize horses trapped in the muck. But the premise of his book is so well-known, the collapse of the tank so thoroughly foreshadowed with creaks and groans and bulges and leaks, all ignored in the name of corporate expediency, that the disaster comes as an anticlimax.
Dark Tide hits its high-water mark in the courtroom, in the civil case that is brought after the state declines to press criminal charges. Plaintiffs’ attorney Damon Hall is pitted against USIA defender Charles Choate, who, in the absence of any real evidence, advances the theory that Italian anarchists opposed to the war and big business dynamited the tank. Given the suddenness of the disaster and the lack of any serious danger to those who rushed to the scene, it is Hall who is Dark Tide’s real hero. (Full disclosure: The book was recommended to me by a good friend who happens to be Hall’s great-grandson.) Puleo himself doesn’t seem to agree, preferring to hold up the example of Col. Hugh W. Ogden, a former Army judge advocate who presides over the lengthy proceedings, deciding the case in the plaintiffs’ favoran act the author attempts to portray as the very height of probity rather than the not necessarily brave result of taking the case on its rather obvious merits.
It is Hall who provides Dark Tide with its few truly dramatic passages, in cross-examinations that lack only stage directions:
Hall: When Mr. Shellhammer [of Hammond Iron Works] showed you the plans in January of 1915, did you have any talk with him about the factor of safety in the specifications?
Jell: I cannot remember.
Hall: Do you remember that you did?
Jell: No, I do not.
Hall: With such experience as you had, were you able, by looking at the plans and specifications, to determine from them what factor of safety had been provided in them?
Hall: Did you submit the plans or specifications to any architect or engineer?
Hall: Did you submit them to the New York office of U.S. Industrial Alcohol? Did you show them to any officer of USIA?
Hall: Did anyone ask to see them, to inspect them?
Hall: I want to ask one more time, before I go on with the next line of inquiry, whether…
the factor of safety as determined upon was the result of any investigation or advice from technically trained engineers, builders, or architects?
Hall: Your answer is “no”?
Hall does a better job than Ogden appears to realize, but his opponent is quick to understand how soundly he has been beaten. When Hall disputes the damages the judge awards to the victims, USIA quickly agrees to more than double them, and the case is laid to rest.
Choate and USIA never really stood a chance. But, seeing the courtroom battle as the climax of his story, Puleo does everything in his power to make its outcome seem up for grabs, even titling the closing third of his book “David vs. Goliath.” In order to accomplish this aim and to conform to the trend of little big histories that have weighed down the new nonfiction tables over the past decade or so (Dark Tide could well have been subtitled The Treacly Deluge That Shocked a City and Changed America Forever), he expands his timeline to cover 10 years, from the moment the tank was conceived to the settlement of the protracted lawsuit, and lards his pages with accounts of anarchist terror and asides meant to convey the often business-friendly political tenor of the times. But his contextualizing impulse frequently threatens to derail the narrative, such as when he delays Jell’s appearance on the witness stand to give us a snapshot of the presidential inauguration. Sorry, but when you hear that Law & Order double drumbeat in your head, the last words you want to read are “Warren G. Harding.”
And, strangely, Puleo gives short shrift to the fallout from the disaster, failing to drive home his claim that “the flood…was a microcosm of America, a dramatic event that encapsulated something much bigger, a lens through which to view the major events that shaped a nation.” It is unclear why, in a book that clearly took some padding to bring it up to hardcover length, the author chose not to take more than a couple of pages in the epilogue to describe the role the flood played in changing engineering certification laws, making building codes more stringent, and galvanizing the politics of the poor, largely Italian-American neighborhood in which the tank had opportunistically been sited.
It is a nice touch, though, to include an appendix that individually lists all the dead. From 10-year-old Maria Distasio, a friend of the similarly ill-fated Pasqualeno, to 76-year-old messenger Michael Sinnott, all are briefly retrieved from sweet oblivion. CP