The North End's sticky situation

Molasses disasterFrom the BPL molasses collection. Posted under this CC license.

On an unseasonably warm January 15, 1919, a 50-foot-high storage tank of molasses - meant to be turned into rum in the rush before Prohibition - burst on Commercial Street in the North End, creating a giant wave of sticky brown death that destroyed buildings, bent the el and killed 21 people.



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Ethanol, not rum

The idea that the tank was overloaded with molasses in a rush to distill rum before Prohibition went into effect is myth. The Purity Distilling Company made industrial ethanol, primarily used in the manufacture of munitions. The tank had been shoddily built and rushed into use without appropriate load testing in 1915, to take advantage of increased production needs for WWI. It leaked from the beginning, and the company painted it brown to disguise the drips.

Many thanks to Stephen Puleo - DARK TIDE was one of the best books I've read in the past 5 years, and a truly eye-opening view into history.

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I heartily recommend Dark Tide for anyone interested in not only this particular disaster, but also in Boston history.

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What a great read!

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Great Book, Great Author

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Puleo's "A City So Grand" is a really good read too.

And ironically there is currently a proposal to bring in 1.8 million gallons of ethanol (pure ethanol, not molasses) by rail into the urban core a few times a week to be mixed with gas for shipment out to gas stations around the region. The Fitchburg line would be used for a mile long chain of explosive rail cars to come trundling through some of the most densely packed urban areas in the country (right past Porter Station, around Union Square to Sullivan, over the Mystic through Everett and Chelsea to Revere - along 1A), including past schools, nursing homes and hospitals. If you've ever seen an ethanol rail car derail, it's nasty. They normally just let it burn out because you can't put it out with water. And they evacuate a mile radius around it, which, if it happened in Chelsea, would be the whole damned city.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to be assholes.
Or something like that...

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There already are regular

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There already are regular ethanol shipments to that area. They go by truck. Rail would be safer.

The feds require ethanol in gasoline. Gasoline comes from Everett and Revere. How should the ethanol get there if not by rail?

Or is the problem that Porter Square residents are more important than people who live near Route 1A, so a safer train in Porter is worse than a less-safe truck in Bell Circle?

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Going in reverse order:

I live walking distance from the Global oil facility and can smell their spills from my house. I am more important than the people in Porter Square (at least that's what my mom tells me).

The Feds are an ass. Requiring 10% ethanol in gas is a handout to agroindustry that must stop. It fucks up 2-stroke motors, is less efficient and when you consider the amount of petroleum that is spent in growing the corn, the whole endeavor is asinine. But that's a different issue really.

They currently have smaller quantities of ethanol coming to Revere by truck which is more dangerous than rail and contributes to air pollution (diesel spewing trucks). Once 1.8 million gallons of ethanol is coming in 2-3 times a week by rail, the number of diesel spewing trucks leaving the mixing station with ethanol/gas mix will skyrocket. (And these trucks have a habit of wiping out occasionally like in Everett and on Route 1 in Saugus - causing a bit of destruction.)

Also the ethanol is coming from a plant in Albany on the river. It could be shipped in from there to the Atlantic and then straight up the Chelsea Creek where we just spent multiple millions widening the Chelsea Street Bridge for just such a thing as well as dredging of the channel not so many years ago as well. (But of course that probably makes the project less economically appealing.)

Rail is safer than trucks, but again the quantity here is several orders of magnitude more than what is currently going in there. Do a google search on ethanol rail accidents and you'll find a long list of incidents of derailments across the country which thankfully usually happen in the middle of bumfuck. When it happened once in an industrial area of Cleveland they evacuated and area of one mile around the explosion (oh yeah these things typically explode when they spill). If that were to happen as this mile long train was running through Chelsea you would be evacuating the entire City.

Finally, the DHS trump card. Al-Quaeda identified ethanol rail cars as a great soft target to go for. Lots of at-grade, unprotected crossings in the middle of cities. The design of the rail cars in the U.S. is recognized by industry people as very poor. They puncture easily. There are better, more robust designs for liquid carrying rail cars in other countries, but again, this would make the project less economically viable.

And they want this to all be next to the site of the luxury casino location at Suffolk Downs. Who the fuck plans this shit? The whole idea is just stupidity. And to return to your first point, if it's only affecting "people near 1A" it will definitely happen because realistically who (in power) cares about them? If we can let the people in Concord, Lincoln, Newton, Cambridge, Stoneham, etc. know that these rail cars will be going down their commuter rail lines and through the center of their towns as well, well then we have a better chance of stopping this project because we live in a racist, classist society where people only think about themselves and money talks.

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Adding to the legend... the claim I heard 25 years or so ago that it was the Great Molasses Flood that wiped out the connecting line between North and South Station...and that's why we can't have nice things any more.

Am I right in believing that was not the case?

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The surface railroad ran into the 1960s. It was street running, and never carried any passengers anyway. As well as serving customers on Atlantic Ave, it let the New Haven easily interchange with the B&M (Search on the Union Freight Railroad)

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Atlantic Avenue Elevated

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It did damage the Atlantic Ave El, but that didn't close until 1938 (low ridership) and was torn down in 1942 to recover the metal for the war effort.

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