Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dark Tide by Stephen Puelo

What happened on January 15, 1919 wasn't a surprise to many of the people who were in close proximity to the huge tank that held two million gallons of molasses. To others the spilling of that molasses through the streets of Boston's North End came as a shock, The force of the molasses took twenty-one lives, leveled buildings and tore apart part of the overhead rail trestles.

In time a trial involved hundreds of witnesses and years and years of hearing testimonies.

Puelo describes the history of molasses in this country from the Triangle trade —rum, slaves and molasses to the use of molasses for munitions. Molasses was an essential component of the munitions industry and significant money could be made by being the supplier of distilled molasses. When the "industrial grade molasses" was distilled into alcohol it was widely used in the manufacture of explosives. With the world embroiled in WWI the need for explosives was high.

The huge tank was built by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company in 1915— the company was intent on providing the necessary molasses quickly and garnering huge profits. Because there were shipments of molasses arriving the final construction of the tank was hurried and normal, for that time, safety precautions were eliminated. Instead of filing the tank up with water to check for leaks and weak areas, the tank was only minimally filled. The amount of water used would not be sufficient to uncover structural weaknesses.

From the beginning it was obvious that there were issues with the tank. Molasses seeped out of of seams and ran down the sides of the tank. Neighborhood children often took pails to the tank and filled them up with the dripping molasses.

Puelo traces the stories of some of the immigrant families living in the area. They were poor, without power, and unable to stand up to the mega company. One man, Gonzales, who worked for the company heard groaning inside the tank and was so concerned about the danger of a rupture that nightmares kept him awake. He often ran through the North End streets to the tanks's location to check up on the tank and assure himself that it wasn't going to erupt—that night.

The company, attempting to disguise the leaks, had the tank painted the color of molasses —thus making the leaks less obvious. Several times they had the seams strengthened, but to no avail.

This time period is one of increased visibility for the anarchist movement. Luigi Galleani was deported, Sacco and Vanzetti's trial and subsequent execution claimed the headlines of newspapers across the country as did the bombing of the New York stock Exchange in 1920.

The judge for the ensuring civil suit was Hugh W.Ogden. He listened to hundreds of hours of testimony. The defense attempted to lay the spill at the feet of the anarchists who they said placed a bomb within the tank. The plaintiff's attorneys decreed that maladroitness and greed were the causes of the spill.

By the end of the trial 25,000 pages of transcripts were generated detailing the arguments. Hugh Ogden ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and held the company liable.

While the book sometimes meanders, the subject itself is riveting.

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