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
Though people have lived in the Yellowstone National Park region for at least 10,000 years, it was only “discovered” in 1807 by mountain man John Colter. People scoffed at his descriptions of the famous geysers and other features as “fire and brimstone.” Succeeding descriptions by other men during the following decades received similar dismissals.
An expedition led by geologist Ferdinand Hayden in 1871 established the reality of Colter’s observations. Its members included noted landscape painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson. Hayden immediately realized the potential of the area. Aided by the stunning images Moran and Jackson produced, he persuaded Congress to set aside the area as a national park—the first in the United States and perhaps the world. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill establishing the park on March 1, 1872.
It was hardly an instant success. The new park’s remoteness and lack of amenities made it accessible only to the hardiest of travelers. Only about 300 people visited it in the first year.
Compounding the problem of access was the disapproval of many people who lived near the park. They wanted to continue to hunt its wildlife and cut down its trees for lumber as well as begin to mine its minerals.
It was difficult to exercise any control over the situation. Congress refused to provide more than a pittance for the park’s protection.
A key development came in 1886 when US Army General Phil Sheridan, acting on his own authority, ordered troops to take control of Yellowstone Park. They built Camp Sheridan (later renamed Fort Yellowstone) inside the park boundaries. Though their presence helped curb poaching and mining, they had little authority to punish offenders.
George Bird Grinnell, publisher of Forest and Stream magazine and founder of the Audubon Society, had long promoted the park even though he lived in New York City. He linked up with rising politician (and future president) Theodore Roosevelt to take advantage of a notorious poaching incident in 1894 and help pass the Lacey Act the same year. The new law provided “teeth” to prosecute lawbreakers.
By then, travel to Yellowstone had become a little easier. Railroads dropped off visitors near the park entrance. They boarded stagecoaches which took them to newly established lodging facilities. And by 1916, when Yellowstone became part of the newly established National Park Service, automobiles were making the park much more accessible. Today more than 3 million people thrill to Yellowstone’s natural wonders every year.
Jim Whiting was a voracious reader when he was a kid, and now he has turned into a voracious writer. He writes books on adventure, sports, history, and most of all, he writes about people. One of his biography series is "Modern Role Models," featuring such popular titles as David Beckham, Jeff Gordon, and Tim Duncan. For more information on the series, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Birth and Growing Pains of the First National Park."
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Nonfiction is the new black
In pro football’s early days, there was no set way of determining the league champion. In 1921, the Buffalo (New York) All-Americans had the best record (8-0-2) in the American Professional Football Association. Runners-up were the Chicago Staleys, named for team sponsor A.E. Staley Starch Company, with a 7-1 mark. (The team would become the Bears the following year.) The Staleys’ only blemish was a 7-6 loss to Buffalo on Thanksgiving Day.
Chicago player-owner George Halas lusted for revenge. He persuaded Buffalo owner Frank McNeil to travel to Chicago for a game the day after the All-Americans’ final game on December 3 in nearby Akron, Ohio. McNeil agreed, with one stipulation: the game would be an exhibition and not count in the final standings.
The Buffalo players took an overnight train to Chicago after a hard-fought triumph. Still recovering from the rigors of that game and lack of sleep, the All-Americans lost to the Staleys 10-7. Halas saw an opportunity. He quickly scheduled two more games with other teams, winning one and tying the other. In his eyes, the results of those additional games meant his team was now 9-1-1, while Buffalo was 9-1-2 (tie games didn’t figure in the standings). Despite the seeming identical records between the two teams, Halas appealed to the other owners. He said his team deserved the league title on two grounds: the second game between Chicago and Buffalo was more important than the first, and his team had outscored Buffalo 16–14 in their two contests.
The owners sided with Halas despite McNeil’s vehement protests that the second Chicago game was an exhibition. McNeil spent the rest of his life trying to overturn what he called the “Staley Swindle.” The league—now the National Football League (NFL)—decided that henceforth the season would have a definite ending date, though rejecting the idea of a championship game.
In 1932 Chicago and the Portsmouth Spartans had identical records. The NFL sanctioned a game between them to determine the champion. Chicago won 9-0. The game attracted so much interest that the NFL split into East and West divisions, with a playoff between the division winners to crown the champion. That playoff has continued to the present day (though adding several rounds to determine the finalists). Super Bowl Sunday has become so important in the United States that many people (not entirely jokingly) have suggested making it a national holiday.
Jim Whiting’s hometown team, the Seattle Seahawks, didn’t make it to the Superbowl this year, but you can still read about them in his book NFL Today The Story of the Seattle Seahawks. Click here to see the list of books Jim has written devoted to football teams and other sports.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Staley Swindle and the Super Bowl." Nonfiction Minute`, iNK
Think Tank, 2 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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