Pat Shingleton: "Exploding Molasses and Dropping the Grate"
Today marks the anniversary of “America’s most fascinating and surreal disaster.” On January 11, 1919, Boston’s Daily Globe reported that “a cold air mass settled in.” The following morning, the mercury tumbled from 36 degrees to 20 at 2:00 p.m to 7 degrees at 10:00 p.m.; then 2 degrees. Crews from the ship Miliero pumped a half million gallons of molasses from its warm hold into tanks holding existing cold molasses causing a bubbling churn; vibrating the tank’s walls. Workers reported the walls were groaning. This process activated fermentation, aided by a temperature rise to 50. Then the top of the 58 foot tank blew and a 50 foot wave of 2 million gallons rushed over the streets killing 21, injuring 150. Before gas furnaces, many relied on the coal furnace. Situated in the basement of the home the burning coal heated an iron “bell” that radiated heat into the rest of the home through a series of insulated ducts. The radiated heat ultimately made it into registers that warmed the rooms and the house. Before bedtime it was the duty of my father, grandfather and later us, to stoke the fire and layer coal to provide some overnight warmth. Eventually, the grate that held the coal ashes sifted into a chamber that was removed on a daily basis. Traditionally, my grandfather would “drop the grate” on Saturday afternoons to remove remaining ashes and to provide more heat than needed - while he took his bath.