USS Constitution, Charlestown Navy Yard

The USS Constitution at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, sometime between 1897 and 1906. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.


A similar view in 2014:


The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy, having been launched in 1797 as one of the original six frigates authorized by Congress.  She is also the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world, the adjective “afloat” being necessary because of HMS Victory, which was commissioned in the Royal Navy in 1778 and remains so today, although she has been in drydock since the 1920s.

The Constitution played an important role in the early years of the US Navy, particularly in 1812, when she earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” after cannonballs bounced off the strong live oak timbers, giving the impression that she had an iron hull.  She served both in a combat role and also later on as a training ship, although by 1881 was no longer fit for active duty.

It was at this point that the large structure seen in the first photo was built across the top of the ship, and the Constitution was used as a receiving ship to house new naval recruits.  However, the ship was deteriorating, and in 1897 she was brought to Boston, where the future of the then-100 year old ship was in serious doubt.  Some proposed turning the ship into a museum ship, while the Secretary of the Navy suggested sinking her as a target ship.  Eventually, in 1906, the ship was restored and the large structure on top was removed.

Today, the Constitution is still in Boston, and although the navy yard is now a national park, the ship still has an active US Navy crew, who give tours to visitors.  Many of the surroundings are the same; the Bunker Hill Monument is still a prominent landmark, surrounded by Charlestown’s low-rise development, and many of the buildings in the navy yard are still there, including the one that is barely visible behind and to the right of the ship in the first photo; this building is the one that is directly behind the Constitution in the 2014 photo.

Charlestown Navy Yard

The Boston Navy Yard, seen from across the harbor, between 1910 and 1920.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The view in 2014:


The two views don’t line up perfectly; the 2014 photo was taken from the waterfront in the North End, while the original appears to have been taken from a boat slightly further into the harbor.  When the original photo was taken, the Charlestown Navy Yard (as it was then known as) was a major naval base; the photo shows a collection of ships, including at least two cruisers (a Denver-class protected cruiser, possibly the USS Des Moines (CL-17), on the far left, and a Chester-class light cruiser, with the four smokestacks in the right-center of the photo).

In the ensuing years, the navy yard built a number of ships, especially during World War II, when the yard constructed destroyers and destroyer escorts, among other naval vessels.  However, the yard closed in 1974, and became part of the Boston National Historical Park.  Today, there has been some new development, particularly the large condominium building on the right-hand side of the photo, but many of the historic structures in the yard are still there, including the building on the far left of the 2014 photo (visible just to the left of the smokestacks on the white-hulled ship), and the small round building near the left-hand side of the condominium building (visible just below and to the right of the tall smokestack near the center of the first photo).

One of the ships from the original photo still exists today, and although it’s not visible in the 2014 photo, it isn’t far away.  The USS Constitution can be seen on the left-hand side of the first photo, just beyond the white-hulled cruiser.  At the time, it was the oldest ship in the US Navy, and it remains so today; it is moored at a pier slightly to the left of the 2014 photo, and still has an active naval crew.

Boston Molasses Disaster (4)

The remains of the molasses storage tank following the Boston Molasses Disaster in 1919. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.


The same view in 2014:


The storage tank that was responsible for the January 15, 1919 Boston Molasses Disaster had been hastily constructed in 1915.  At the time, World War I was ongoing in Europe, and although the United States remained officially neutral, American companies were supplying munitions and other items to Europe.  One important product was industrial alcohol, and the increased demand led the Purity Distilling Company to quickly build a 50 foot tall and 90 foot diameter tank to store molasses, which would later be transported and distilled into alcohol.

The tank was known for its frequent leaks, but the company’s response was to paint it brown to camouflage the molasses that dripped down the side.  Often, residents would help themselves to some of the leaking sweetener, likely unaware of the danger that the tank posed.  However, on January 15, 1919, the tank burst, likely due to the internal pressure caused by the fermentation of the molasses, along with the rapid rise in air temperature from the previous day.

The resulting flood created a 25-foot wave that killed 21 people, injured around 150, and caused extensive property damage.  Today, the area has been redeveloped as a park, with the actual location of the tank being approximately where this baseball diamond is located today, at what is now known as Langone Park.  Notice the Charlestown waterfront in the distance, including the masts of the USS Constitution.

Boston Molasses Disaster (3)

The Engine 31 firehouse along Commercial Street in Boston’s North End, following the 1919 Boston Molasses Disaster.  Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.


The scene in 2014:


As mentioned in this post, the Engine 31 firehouse was located right next to the molasses storage tank, and was knocked off of its foundation by the 25-foot wave that resulted when the tank burst.  One firefighter, George Layhe, was trapped under the building and drowned in the molasses.  Today, the scene along the waterfront is a public park, with little evidence of its industrial past or the disaster that occurred here 95 years ago.

Boston Molasses Disaster (2)

Another view of the aftermath of the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.


The scene in 2014:


Because of the properties of molasses, a flood of it is very different from a flood of water or similar liquid.  Many victims of the January 15, 1919 Boston Molasses Disaster drowned in the molasses, not necessarily because they didn’t know how to swim, but because swimming in molasses is impossible.  It also made rescue and recovery operations difficult; notice the firemen wading in knee-deep molasses, with everything around them coated in it.  In this particular scene, they are working next to a firehouse that once existed along the waterfront; it was completely swept off of its foundation by the 25-foot wave of molasses that came when the nearby storage tank burst.  One fireman at the station, George Layhe, was trapped under the building and drowned in the molasses; he was one of the 21 people killed in the accident.  Today, the site of the molasses tank and the firehouse has been turned into a public park, as seen in the 2014 photo.

Boston Molasses Disaster (1)

The view looking northwest on Commercial Street in Boston’s North End in 1919, in the aftermath of the Boston Molasses Disaster. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library.


The same scene in 2014:


It almost seems comical to think of a massive flood of molasses, but the Boston Molasses Disaster was actually a serious tragedy that killed 21 people and injuring about 150 others.  On January 15, 1919, a 50-foot tall tank of molasses burst along the waterfront in the North End, flooding the neighborhood with 2.3 million gallons of the thick, sticky substance.

The tank was located on the left-hand side of Commercial Street, just to the right of the photo, and along with killing or injuring a number of people, it also caused substantial property damage, sweeping buildings off their foundations as causing heavy damage to the Commercial Street elevated railway, as seen in the photo above.  Today, the elevated tracks are long gone, and most of what was once an industrial area on the right-hand side along the waterfront is now a public park.