I am referring, of course to The Great Boston Molasses Flood:
For bystanders, the first clue something was wrong was a sound different from the usual thrum of the overhead train. The Boston Evening Transcript later described it as “a deep rumble.”
At around 1pm on 15 January 1919, a 50ft-tall steel holding tank on Commercial Street in Boston’s North End ruptured, sending 2.3m gallons of molasses pouring into the neighborhood.
Owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, the molasses had been brought to the city from the Caribbean, then piped from the harbor to the vat through 220ft of heated piping. The tank was built in 1915 to accommodate increased wartime demand. But from its inception, it leaked.
On 13 January, it had been filled almost to capacity. Two days later, parts of the metal tank ripped though trusses of the elevated train track, 20ft below. Horses and people were swept away.
A class action lawsuit arose from the flood, Dorr v United States Industrial Alcohol Company, with 119 plaintiffs including families of victims and injured parties. They argued that the tank was too thin and poorly built. The company argued that Italian anarchist groups blew up the tank.
The investigation lasted more than five years, with over a thousand witnesses testifying. In April 1925, a state auditor ruled that company’s negligence led to structural failure of the tank. Victims and their families were granted $628,000 in damages.
The first class action lawsuit against a major corporation, Dorr paved the way for modern regulation.
One local, Stephen Puleo, was working on a master’s thesis on Italian immigrants when he began to research the flood. The North End neighborhood was more than 90% Italian back then, a working class area. In 2003 Puleo published a book, Dark Tide: the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.
Puleo told the Guardian: “The tank itself didn’t even require a permit to be built. I liked to tell people, the molasses flood did for building construction standards what the Cocoanut Grove fire did for fire standards across the country. You have these two disasters, and long-standing positive ramifications.”
Also the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Why we need pesky bureaucrats.