The Explainer General
Most disasters are a cascade: small failures and minor circumstances, one leading to another, blossom into a cataclysm. On January 16, 1919, a cascade of tremendous size was poised above Boston’s North End.
The weather was one factor: unusually warm for winter.
Purity Distilling Company fermented and distilled molasses to make rum and alcohol. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting sales of alcoholic beverages, was due to be passed the very next day. This may have prompted Purity to collect as much molasses as possible.
The enormous tank holding the molasses was about 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, holding 2,300,000 gallons. It was poorly built of thin steel painted brown to hide its leaks. Local families often collected some of the dripping molasses to sweeten their food. The unseasonably warm temperature quickly rose from 2° F (-16.7° C) to 40° F (4.4° C), expanding the liquid, and natural fermentation produced CO2 increasing tank pressure.
Just after noon, North End families felt the ground shake and heard a sound like a machine gun— the tank’s rivets popping out. The big tank exploded, sending a 25-foot wall of molasses roaring down the hill toward Commercial Street at about 35 miles an hour. In front of the molasses went a blast of air that blew some folks off their porches and tumbled others along the street like rag dolls. Homes and buildings were destroyed, smashed from their foundations. Horses pulling wagons were swept away. The steel girders of the Boston Elevated Railway were buckled, knocking a rail-car off the tracks.
Twenty-one people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. Many were saved by Massachusetts Maritime Academy cadets who rushed off their docked training vessel and plunged into the brown goo to rescue people. It’s difficult to know how many dogs, cats and horses died.
As you can imagine, the clean-up was awful. Firehoses from hydrants and harbor fireboats washed away as much as possible. Boston Harbor was brown for months. Sightseers tracked the goo back to homes, into hotels, onto pay-phones and onto doorknobs. Everything Bostonians touched was sticky for months.
Some say that on a hot summer day along the North End’s docks, the sickly sweet smell of molasses lingers. Bostonians can smile at the Great Molasses Flood now, but in January of 1919, that cascade of disasters was deadly serious.
Jan Adkins is an author, an illustrator, and a superb storyteller. Read about him on his Amazon page. He is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Great Boston Molasses Flood: How Can a Tragedy Sound Funny?"
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 19 Jan. 2018,
Nonfiction is the new black
In the early 1900s, becoming the first to reach the South Pole was a huge source of individual and national pride. English explorer Ernest Shackleton came within 97 miles of that goal in 1909 before being forced to turn back.
Fellow Englishman Robert Scott made well-publicized plans to succeed where Shackleton had failed. He was therefore dismayed to learn that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had his own secret plan to reach the Pole. Amundsen hadn’t even told his crew members where they were going until they were at sea.
The two expeditions landed in Antarctica at roughly the same time and spent months preparing for their respective treks. Amundsen departed on October 18, 1911. He was fortunate to encounter relatively good weather. On December 7, he passed the southernmost point Shackleton had reached. One week later, on December 14, he and his four men stood on the South Pole. Each man grasped the Norwegian flag. They celebrated in the evening with seal meat and cigars. Before returning, they erected a tent and put letters for Scott and Norwegian King Haakon inside. Amundsen and his men arrived back at their starting point in late January and sailed to Tasmania, where Amundsen sent a cable trumpeting his accomplishment. Even though the response was mostly favorable, some people in England thought Amundsen had played a dirty trick by being so secretive about his plans.
Meanwhile, Scott and his four men left from their base three weeks after Amundsen. They encountered some of the worst weather Antarctica could throw at them. Several times they had to stay in their tents for extended periods, eating valuable food. They finally arrived at the Pole on January 17, only to have their triumph replaced with bitter disappointment. They found Amundsen’s letters and knew they were five weeks too late.
Their difficulties worsened on the way back. Two men died from cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Scott and the two others made what proved to be their final camp on March 19, confined to their tent by horrific weather. They were about 10 miles from a food depot that would have ensured their survival, but couldn’t reach it. Searchers found their frozen bodies eight months later.
Amundsen died in 1928 in a plane crash during a rescue mission in the Arctic Ocean. Shortly before his death, he told a journalist, “If only you knew how splendid it is up here, that’s where I want to die.”
Aristotle discovered Antarctica nearly 2,500 years ago, though no one set foot on the continent until the 1800s. Exploration went into high gear several decades later during the Heroic Age. The peak came in 1911 when Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the Pole, followed soon afterward by the tragic deaths of Englishman Robert Scott and four companions. This is one of many of Jim Whiting's books.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "To the Ends of the Earth." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18
Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
You may know that monarch butterfly populations east of the Rocky Mountains fly to sites in Mexico for the winter. But monarchs live in the west, too, and most of them overwinter in central and southern California.
One of the largest western overwintering sites is California’s Pismo State Beach Butterfly Grove. From late October through February, visitors can watch monarch butterflies clinging to the leaves and branches of giant eucalyptus trees. The butterflies are in hibernation, feeding little if at all and with their internal systems slowed down. The warmth of the sun wakes them partially, and some flutter from one spot to another. When storms threaten, the monarchs cluster on branches inside the grove where the trees help break up the heavy rain and the power of high winds.
Some may have left Canada in early September, arriving at the grove in October. They may have traveled 2,000 miles at a rate of 100 miles a day, flying as high as 10,000 feet above sea level. But it’s worth the journey. In this grove are conditions that suit them well—relative warmth, humidity, light and shade, and moderate temperatures as well as protection from stormy weather.
As weather warms and days grow longer, the winter monarchs will mate, then begin the journey northward. But these individuals don’t make it back home. The females lay their eggs on milkweed plants, then die. The eggs hatch into tiny caterpillars that grow so fast on their leafy diet that, as one website states, it’s like a human baby growing to the size of an adult gray whale in two weeks! The caterpillar pupates and emerges later as a new butterfly which mates and travels further north. This process continues for four or five generations, until summer fades with shortening days. Then the next generation of winter monarchs hatches, repeating the cycle. How does the information for this amazing cycle pass through the generations? No one knows.
Unfortunately, the western population of monarchs has declined drastically in recent years. Luckily, wherever you live, you can do things to help monarchs survive and thrive. Visit this site for more information.
The butterflies don't always stay in one place but flutter around now and then as you can see in this video.
Dorothy's new book has had rave reviews including one by Vicki Cobb. She went to Tasmania and saw what was happening. Now you can read the story.
When eighteen-year-old Victoria was crowned queen of England in 1837, the British wondered and worried who their very young queen would marry. Whoever he was, he would have power and influence, so the queen’s choice was critical.
Victoria had many royal suitors and was getting advice from all directions about which alliance with which suitor would be most advantageous for England. But as the British quickly learned, their new queen had a mind of her own, and she had already picked Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg, an area of what is now Bavaria, Germany.
The British were shocked! Royalty often intermarried, so it wasn’t because Victoria and Albert were first cousins—her mother and his father were sister and brother—but because there was a great deal of anti-German sentiment in England at the time. Victoria didn’t care. He was her “dear Albert” and they were married in 1840 when they were both twenty-one. They loved each other and were determined that theirs would be a happy marriage.
The odds were against this. Neither Albert nor Victoria had grown up in happy families—in fact, both had been exposed to mostly miserable marriages—and Victoria was spoiled, stubborn, and had a quick temper. Fortunately, Albert was a kind man who understood her well and knew how to be patient with her. That patience was put to the test many times as they raised their nine children. Victoria disliked being pregnant and wasn’t fond of babies and toddlers. But Albert provided balance. He doted on their four sons and five daughters and was closely involved in their care and education.
The British public adored the royal family, and they came to love the scholarly Albert. He became a British citizen, was a wise political advisor to Victoria, and was active in public life. When he died from stomach problems in 1861 at age forty-two, the British grieved for him.
Victoria went into deep mourning. Often called “the widow of Windsor,” she wore only black and lived a secluded life at Windsor Castle until her own death at age eighty-one. Today, her name and Albert’s grace London’s great Victoria and Albert Museum, known affectionately as the V&A. London is also home to several major public monuments that were commissioned by Victoria to honor her “dear Albert” and which serve as a reminder that theirs was truly a royal love story.
Marriage of Victoria and Albert Painting by George Hayter It has been said that Queen Victoria started a bridal custom of wearing a white wedding gown. Prior to that time royal brides wore elaborate dresses made especially for the occasion from gold or silver fabric sometimes embroidered with silken threads and embellished with semi-precious stones to show their wealthy status. Ordinary brides of the working class wore their “best dress” usually made in a dark and durable material.
Prince Albert and Queen Victoria with five of their children. The Prince Consort (26 August 1819 – 14 December 1861), lived long enough to see only one of his children married and two of his grandchildren born , while Queen Victoria (24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901) lived long enough to see not only all her grandchildren, but many of her 87 great-grandchildren as well.
Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens were acquaintances and she was a huge fan of his books. You can read more about the Victorian age in Andrea Warren's book Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London. For more information, visit her website.
Andrea Warren is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Victoria and Albert: The Royals Who Married for Love."
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Jan. 2018,
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968). This year, we're celebrating his birthday on January 20. Spend a "Minute" with Dr. King; read Amy Nathan's "Standing with Dr. King" and relive his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
The NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Committee is pleased to inform you
that 30 People Who Changed the World has been selected for Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2018, a cooperative project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) & the Children’s Book Council