A STICKY BUSINESS
Chapter One: The North End
January 19,1919 was a cold but sunny Sunday morning in the mile square
area of Boston known as the North End. Thousands of its residents
flocked to the St. Leonard Church. The pews, aisles and other standing
areas were filled to capacity. Hundreds of other parishioners were
standing outside, oblivious to the cold, straining to hear the mass and
to pray for the twenty-one men, women and children who lost their lives,
and the one hundred fifty people injured, in one of Boston's most tragic
In the early decades after the founding of our nation, the North End had
been the home of wealthy Protestant Americans. But by the late 1800s,
they had moved to Beacon Hill and other areas as waves of Irish Catholic
immigrants moved in and commercial expansion occurred. The North End
became densely populated with mostly Irish Catholics living in dingy
small wood frame houses, in near slum conditions. For a couple of
decades beginning in 1890, most of the Irish moved to nicer areas, like
South Boston and Jamaica Plain, as thousands of poor Italian immigrants
moved into the North End and many of the small wood frame houses were
replaced by three story tenements with small apartments. A large church,
St. Leonard, was constructed, becoming the first Italian Catholic church
in New England. But the majority and wealthiest of Bostonians were still
About that time, someone summed up Boston society with a ditty that
"Boston, the home of the baked bean and the cod,
Where the Cabots talk only to the Lowells,
And the Lowells speak only to God."
A century ago, Boston was not only the home of the baked bean. New
England, and especially Boston, was also the nation's largest producer,
as well as the largest consumer, of rum.
In 1915, molasses shipped to Boston from the West Indies was a popular
sweetener used in baked beans as well as the main ingredient in the
manufacture of rum and alcohol. Purity Distilling Company of Cambridge,
Massachusetts, was one of the largest such manufacturers in New England.
To store the enormous amount of molasses it used annually, the company
decided to build a giant storage tank on a lot it owned on the harbor
side of Commercial Street in Boston's North End.
Its draftsmen prepared the plans for a huge steel drum, 58 feet high, 90
feet in diameter, with half inch thick curved steel plates riveted
together, set into a concrete base, capable of holding 2,300,000 gallons
of the gooey liquid.
Commercial Street was a main artery in the North End, running from the
Charlestown Bridge to Atlantic Avenue, partially curving around part of
the base of Copp's Hill with its cluster of old wood frame houses. On
the Boston Harbor side of Commercial Street, across from the foot of
Copp's Hill, the storage tank and its adjacent pumping station were
constructed. The Paving Division of the Boston Public Works Department
had a barn-like storage structure and stable for a dozen horses nearby.
A dozen or so feet away was the Fire Department's wharf by which were
docked its patrol boats. On the other side of the storage tank were the
freight office and spur tracks of the Boston and Worcester Railway. High
above Commercial Street were the tracks of the Elevated Railway,
supported by evenly spaced steel girders.
A couple of years after the storage tank was built, due to political
pressure from the WCTU and other groups determined to eliminate the
manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in this
country, it seemed likely that an amendment to the constitution would be
passed, prohibiting such activities. Motivated by that possibility,
Purity Distilling sold its facilities to the United States Industrial
Alcohol Company. The manufacture of alcohol for industrial use was not
prohibited under the proposed constitutional amendment.
Monday and Tuesday, January 13 and 14, 1919, were among the coldest on
record in Boston. The temperature both days reached only about two
degrees Fahrenheit. The Paving Department's horse-drawn carriages were
spreading salt and sand on icy patches of busy Commercial Street. On
Wednesday morning, January 15, the bitter cold suddenly departed, as the
temperature rapidly rose to forty degrees Fahrenheit.
At the foot of Copp's Hill, across the street from the storage tank,
sixty five year old Bridget Clougherty was reprimanding her son,
"Son, please don't go to the pool hall today. It's several blocks away
and in this cold weather the sidewalks may be icy. It's dangerous for
you to walk there using your crutches; you could slip and fall and be
unable to get up."
"Mom, I've had to use crutches for years 'cause of my disability. I'm
used to it. It ain't snowing and the Road Department's been out throwing
salt on the streets and sidewalks.Ma, I promise I'll be careful. Cross
my heart and hope to die. But this afternoon I gotta go to the pool
hall. A couple of the guys challenged me to a game of billiards."
Frustrated, but realizing her son wanted to be treated like a normal
young man despite his disability and hoping her son would be careful,
Mrs. Clougherty went about her business, cleaning the house. It was old.
She and her husband purchased it thirty five years earlier, when the
North End was inhabited by the Irish. Now, mostly Italians lived there.
But the North End was where the scenic Charles River flowed into the
Atlantic Ocean, and she loved the view, especially of Old Ironsides,
docked in Charlestown Navy Yard across the Harbor. The outside was
deteriorating, but she did her best to keep the interior of her house in
A short distance away, at the DiStasio's house, ten year old Maria was
at home, having just recovered from a cold. Her brother and three
sisters were at the nearby school. Her mother handed her a burlap bag.
"It's warmed up a lot, Maria. Take this bag and go across the street to
the railroad tracks. There's always some pieces of wood there. Pick up
about five pieces, put them in the bag, and bring them home so we can
use them in the fireplace tonight. Be careful crossing the street."
On the Harbor side of the street, in the City's paving yard, forty three
year old John Callahan and three of his co-workers were stacking bales
of hay to feed the horses. At about 12:15 p.m. they intended to break
for lunch. Since the weather was a balmy 45 degrees, they would have
their lunch outdoors.
Nearby, in the Boston and Worcester Railway freight yard, workers were
loading freight onto the boxcars on the spur track, near where little
Maria DiStasio was gathering wood for the fireplace. By fifteen minutes
past noon, there was considerable traffic on Commercial Street. The road
was crowded with horse-drawn wagons, motorized trucks and automobiles.
Every fifteen minutes, an elevated train passed overhead. The sidewalks
were crowded with pedestrians sorting through the vegetables and goods
for sale at the carts and stands lining Commercial Street. On the land
side of that street, the sidewalk was busy with children walking home
from the nearby school.
(a) A Sudden Tsunami of Destruction and Death
John Callahan and his co-workers were sitting on the ground very close
to the storage tank, eating their lunch, chatting about the veterans of
the Great War who would be returning home within a few weeks, and
especially the upcoming baseball season.
"In just a couple of months, it'll be baseball season. I think the Red
Sox 'll be able to win the pennant and World Series again this year, if
its owner, Frazee, lets the Bambino play in more games by using him in
the outfield as well as a pitcher. The Babe's a powerful hitter—the
best in baseball. Hope Frazee doesn't decide to sell him to finance his
money-losing Broadway shows. It'd be a real dumb move, breaking up one
of the game's winningest teams."
At that moment, the men were startled by a deafening rumbling sound, as
the tank full of molasses ruptured, followed by loud popping sounds as
rivets shot through the air. Pieces of steel burst off and rocketed out
in all directions. The thick, brown, gooey liquid burst forth from the
tank in tsunami-like fast moving waves as high as fifteen feet with such
force that buildings were toppled and washed away, and the streets were
flooded for several blocks. Moments later, the vacuum resulting from the
explosion sucked portions of nearby buildings, vehicles, people and
animals back towards the remnants of the storage tank.
Callahan and his co-workers were killed instantly, blown to pieces by
the force of the exploding tank. Mrs. Clougherty's small wood frame
house across the street was crushed by a thirty-five mile per hour wave
of thick molasses, instantly killing the poor woman. Her son, walking on
the sidewalk going towards the pool hall, was drowned in a sea of the
thick, sticky liquid. The railroad employees who had been loading the
boxcars were forced to the ground and smothered by waves of molasses.
The freight cars were pushed off the tracks and toppled onto their
sides. Little Maria DiStasio dropped her burlap bag filled with wood, as
the force of the wave of molasses pushed her to the ground, covering and
asphyxiating her. The nearby Public Works Department shack and stable
were crushed and the horses drowned. Carriages, trucks, automobiles and
fruit and vegetable stands on Commercial Street were tossed like toys in
the hands of an angry four year old having a tantrum.
A large chunk of the steel plate wall of the storage tank flew up the
street, striking and severely bending one of the steel girders that
supported the elevated railway. A forty foot span of the tracks
collapsed, bending down in a V shape to within a few feet of the street
Excerpted from "A Sticky Business and Short Stories" by Mel King. Copyright © 2015 by Mel King. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.