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The day the molasses flowed

By RUTH YOUNGBLOOD

BOSTON -- The Chicago Fire and the San Francisco Earthquake have been memorialized in books and motion pictures. The Great Molasses Flood of Boston doesn't even have a plaque.

The what?

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Except for a few oldtimers, most residents of Boston's North End know nothing of the day a 15-foot tidal wave of molasses swamped the bustling streets, suffocating and crushing to death 21 people, injuring 150 others and causing millions of dollars damage.

Louis A. Gilardi, a resident of the North end, wants a plaque marking the tragedy on Jan. 15, 1919, when a tank explosion unleashed 2 million gallons of seething syrup onto the commercial-waterfront area. He appealed to the Massachusetts Legislature to make sure 'the unique tragedy' isn't forgotten.

While the mere mention of a molasses avalanche raised more than a few eyebrows in disbelief, Gilardi's petition for a bill memorializing the victims evoked such enthusiasm the measure appears certain to be adopted.

Gilardi proposed that names of the dead be inscribed on the plaque placed where the two-story-high wave of molasses swept over Commercial Street.

At 40, Gilardi is too young to know of the freak accident first-hand, but his 68-year-old mother does.

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'I was only a child,' Mrs. Rose Gilardi said, 'but I remember the molasses flowing through the streets like a river.'

There was no warning except a rumble and a subsequent explosion in the giant tank atop the Purity Distillery Co. building 'sounded like fireworks going off,' she said. 'I haven't forgotten it after all these years.'

Mrs. Gilardi was a safe distance from the devastation. She said hundreds of people and animals later wandered through the streets covered with gooey syrup, but none of her friends or relatives died in the disaster.

Gilardi, a state employee, said 10 years ago when a University of Massachusetts professor asked him what he knew of the disaster he 'was so embarrassed because I didn't know what he was talking about.' But, he realized he was not alone.

'I never even heard the subject mentioned in school,' he said. 'I had to go through old newspaper clippings to find out what actually happened.'

Workers and shoppers were engulfed by the seething morass. Wagons, Model Ts and bicycles clattering over the cobblestones were scooped up and smashed. Entire buildings collapsed under the weight.

City workers eating lunch at a public works yard drowned where they sat. Children heading home from school were swallowed by the sticky tide, and snorting, kicking horses were hurled to their doom.

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It was believed fermenting molasses built up an explosive force that was too much for the tank to contain.

'This was such a unique tragedy,' Gilardi said, 'but when I took a poll of teenagers throughout the North Shore, none of them knew what I was talking about.

'Many laughed, thinking it was a joke, but they stopped laughing and were fascinated when I told them what happened.'

It occurred to Gilardi 'the molasses flood would be relegated to those old newspaper clippings no one remembers within a matter of years' if he did not try to ensure its rightful place in history.

Gilardi asked his state representative, Salvatore F. Dimasi, D-Boston, to submit a plaque bill. At a public hearing Wednesday, the measure was unanimously endorsed and sent to the Ways and Means Committee for a pricetag.

Gilardi said the plaque would generate public interest and cost little at a time the Legislature is trying to cut expenses.

'The event is an integral part of our past,' Gilardi said, 'and it should be remembered.'

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