Friday, March 15, 2019

Beware the Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March. This famous warning was issued by a soothsayer to Roman leader Julius Caesar. Caesar paid little attention to his demise and was murdered on March 15. But the date seems to draw interesting tragedies to it.
Czar Nicholas II of Russia abdicated his thrown on March 15, 1917. NASA announced on March 15, 1988 that the ozone layer over Northern Hemisphere was depleting three times faster than predicted. And then there was the blizzard of the century …

March 15, 1941 had been a delightful day in the Red River Valley region of North Dakota. The sun had come out and the snow was beginning to melt. Spirits were high because spring couldn’t be far behind. It was Saturday night and local residents were enjoying a night on the town after a week of grim war news from Europe.
The weather forecast was typical for the area -snow with colder temperatures arriving overnight. No one knew that the weather system bearing down on the region would be remembered for decades as the Blizzard of the Century.                                                                          
It began with the wind – intensely cold wind that kept building until it sustained at 50 mph with bursts up to 85 mph. People were driving to activities when the winds hit. Reports indicated that temperatures dropped 20 degrees within 15 minutes that evening as artic air roared through bringing blizzard conditions. Many families froze to death in their vehicles or trying to find shelter. Snow drifts measured 7-feet high, some reaching up to 12-feet. When the storm had passed, 151 people had perished - 39 in North Dakota and 32 in Minnesota.
This freak storm brought about a necessary change in how blizzard watches and warnings were handled. No longer would Chicago weathermen issue alerts for regions outside the Windy City.  Local weathermen would begin to establish control over their region’s forecasting, and issue alerts and warnings as needed.
Here’s wishing you a calm and enjoyable Ides of March!

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Boston Globe Headline
One hundred years ago, Boston was deluged in one of the stickiest messes it’s ever had to face. Around midday on January 15, 1919, a 58-foot tall storage tank at the Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, burst apart releasing more than two million gallons of hot molasses. According to The Boston Globe, there was a “tidal wave of death and destruction stalking through the North End.” The sudden release of millions of gallons of molasses sent waves of the sticky substance surging between 15 and 40 feet high through the area. 

Why were millions of gallons of molasses being stored in Boston? The molasses was held waiting to be processed into industrial alcohol, according to United States Industrial Alcohol Company.

The North End of Boston Covered in Deadly Molasses
Known as the Great Molasses Flood, the syrup covered people, horses and automobiles. Workers ran for cover as rivets popped loose from the tank and peppered the area like bullets. Structures were knocked off their foundations including the fire station - home to Fire Boat 31. The Boston Elevated had just passed the tank before it burst. Molasses then surged out leveling the elevated trestle with a wave of syrup as the tracks fell to the street below.

Rescue Attempts
Twenty-one people were killed; two were 10-year-old children walking home for lunch. Seventeen more were nearby workers. Most died of suffocation as the molasses congealed quickly in the cool winter air hampering rescue efforts. More than 150 people were injured. Dozens of horses were killed in the flood of syrup. Railroad clerk Walter Merrithew was trapped against a freight shed where he hung several feet above the ground watching horses trying to outrun the rushing brown substance. Rescue attempts took four days, and clean up of the area took another six months to complete. Damage to the city was estimated at around $100 million.

Parts of the Exploded Tank
The court battle was one of the longest in the history of Massachusetts. Rumors of anarchists with a bomb were floated by US Industrial Alcohol Company, parent company of Purity Distilling. Others said the molasses had fermented in the tank, which led to the eruption. More than 3,000 witnesses were called to testify including engineers, scientists, and metallurgists. It took six years before investigators ruled that shoddy tank construction was the cause of the explosion. The United States Industrial Alcohol Company was found to be at fault and ordered to pay  $1 million dollars in damages.

In 2015, researchers determined that the disaster was indeed caused by the thin steel used in the design of the tank. The casualty rate was aided by the chilly winter air, which caused the molasses to thicken quickly trapping people as it rolled through the neighborhood.
Today the location of the plant where the tank was stored is now a recreational complex. Some say on extremely hot summer days you can still catch a whiff of molasses...
~ Joy