January 15 - 1798: Highland Lighthouse is lit

1919: The Great Molasses Flood in Boston
Highland (Cape Cod) Lighthouse, North Truro. Photo by Maggie Kulbokas

1798: The day Cape Cod's first lighthouse was lit, one of America's first

On this day in 1798, the Highland Lighthouse in North Truro, one of the first in American history, was illuminated for the first time. It was the first in America to have an illuminated light.

Twenty months earlier, a bill was passed in Congress and later signed by President George Washington to build a lighthouse on the Highlands or Clay "Pound" (Ponds) of North Truro. In August 1797 the federal government acquired 10 acres along the coast from Isaac Small for $110 - $100 for the land, $10 for the right of way. The right of way still exists as Lighthouse Road.

In September 1797 a 45-foot octagonal wooden tower was built on a stone foundation, with a lantern that was six feet in diameter and eight feet tall. The first fuel for illumination was whale oil and eventually lard.

In the years to come, the lighthouse developed serious structural problems and was demolished in 1857. A new one was built in its place with a powerful and state-of-the-art Fresnel lens.

After several further upgrades to its lens, the lighthouse was moved 570 feet inland in 1996 due to beach erosion.

(Right: Old woodcut depicts the Truro Lighthouse in the 1850s.)

1919: The Great Molasses Flood in Boston

On this day in 1919, people in Boston's North End were startled by a loud rumbling noise. They watched in horror as a five-story tank broke apart, unleashing a wave of molasses 15 feet high and 160 feet wide. Moving at 35 miles per hour, it traveled over two blocks and engulfed everything in its path.

The disaster killed 21 people, injured 150, and caused property damage of more than 100,000,000 in today's dollars. The tank's owners claimed that anarchists had dynamited it as a protest against the American government. In fact, the tank had been hastily constructed and overloaded. Years later, the tank's owner was found liable and ordered to pay compensation to the victims. The aftermath is shown on right.

At lunchtime, on a mild day in January 1919, Boston's Commercial Street wharf, on the edge of the densely populated North End, was bustling. Horse-drawn wagons and motor trucks made deliveries to area businesses and to the ships moored in the harbor. Employees of the Department of Public Works took a break from their jobs at the DPW stables, offices, and workshops to eat lunch outside.

Across Commercial Street from the wharf, 65-year-old Bridget Clougherty enjoyed the warm winter weather as she hung laundry from her porch. Passenger trollies traveled back and forth on the elevated track. Looming over all this activity was a huge dark presence, a 50-foot-tall brown metal tank. It contained 2,300,000 gallons of molasses. No above ground receptacle in Boston had ever held more.

Suddenly there was a loud rumbling sound and then a "rat-a-tat-tat" that witnesses described as sounding like a machine gun. The ground shook as if a train were passing overhead. The awful sound of tearing metal followed. The molasses tank had come apart.

For everyone in the immediate area, the world went black as a monstrous wave of molasses engulfed everything within a two-block area. The devastation was horrific: the buildings on the dock were flattened or swept off their foundations and crushed.

Employees of the Public Works department, firemen at duty in a nearby station, children playing in the street, Bridget Clougherty on the porch of her house were knocked over and drowned, or crushed by the sheer force of 26,000,000 pounds of molasses. See Wikipedia which is the source for these photos.

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