10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History

Larry Holzwarth - May 26, 2018

Natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes are unavoidable. Man-made disasters are not. Sometimes one can lead to the other, as in the case of poorly maintained levees breaking, creating flooding in the wake of hurricanes. Massive mudslides are often the result of a combination of the forces of nature and poor engineering and design on the part of man. Dams have collapsed because of errors of engineering leading to massive, sudden floods and the deaths of hundreds, as in the case of the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in Los Angeles. Some failures are simply errors of judgment.

Accidents also occur when the engineering was sound but deficiencies in materials used in construction or maintenance of man-made structures causes them to fail. Over time, many bridges have collapsed because of the failure of seemingly minor parts, which led to a failure chain causing them break apart. Others have been swept away when they were unable to resist the forces of water rushing at or near flood levels. Over 10% of the bridges in the United States were rated as structurally deficient in the early 21st century, meaning that they require higher levels of monitoring and preventive maintenance in order to avoid them becoming another disaster of the type described here.

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
The Teton Dam collapses under the pressure of the reservoir it was built to create. US Bureau of Reclamation

Here are ten times when judgement, engineering, or design have lead to failures.

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
Survivors of the Johnstown Flood of 1889 gather for disaster relief. Library of Congress

The Johnstown Flood

The collapse of the South Fork Dam on May 31, 1889 led to the Johnstown flood. The dam failed, releasing Lake Conemaugh to sweep through the valley where Johnstown stood, destroying much of the town and killing over 2,000 people, most of whom had little warning. Although the dam failed after several days of heavy rains, years of poor maintenance and an inadequate design of the structure were the causes of the disaster. The dam was built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as part of the canal system between 1838 and 1853, but after railroads made the canals obsolete, the dam and the lake it created, Lake Conemaugh, were sold.

The purchasers were a consortium led by Pittsburgh businessmen, including Henry Clay Frick, which bought the property to create a private resort which they called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. They made alterations to the dam, lowered and widened its top, installed screens in the spillway to prevent fish from leaving the lake via the spillway, and ignored the previously removed drain pipes and valves. They thus had no means of lowering the water levels of the lake. The road built on the top of the dam was to provide access to the club. After the modifications the dam was reported to be leaking in several locations. Leaks were repaired with a mixture of mud and straw.

After several days of heavy rain in late May 1889, the level of water in the lake was threatening to crest the top of the dam, and it was leaking heavily in several places. On May 31 the president of the South Fork Club mustered a group of maintenance workers and attempted to relieve pressure on the dam by opening the spillway. The screens which had been placed there to trap fish were admirably suited to also trap debris, and the spillway was hopelessly clogged. Others attempted to raise the crest of the dam by piling rocks and mud on top. In Johnstown, about 14 miles below the dam, water levels in the streets reached as high as ten feet in some places as the Little Conemaugh overflowed its banks.

High water in the streets trapped many residents in their homes, on the upper floors. They were huddled there when the dam broke before the pressure of the water just before 3 PM. As the water rushed towards Johnstown it created and gathered debris which swept along with it, including the remains of a railroad bridge which had stopped the flood for a few minutes. The wall of water and debris hit Johnstown about one hour after breaching the dam, the same amount of time it took Lake Conemaugh to drain. It carried the remains of some small towns, railroad cars, trees, dead horses and humans, and coils of barbed wire which it acquired when it crushed the Cambria Iron Works.

The relief effort after the disaster at Johnstown continued for years and is a story of its own. Although the dam had not been properly maintained for years and it had been modified from its original design, an investigation concluded that it would have failed anyway, faulting the original designers. This investigation, by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) was challenged in the 21st century, when another investigation concluded that it was the modifications to the dam which led to its failure, particularly the failure to maintain the spillway. None of the survivors or their families ever received any compensation from the South Fork Hunting and Fishing club for their losses.

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
After the collapse of the Silver Bridge a ferry was used to cross the Ohio until a new bridge was completed. Wikimedia

The Silver Bridge Collapse

The Silver Bridge connected Point Pleasant, West Virginia to Gallipolis, Ohio by spanning the Ohio River and carrying US 35. It was built in 1928, a suspension bridge using eyebar-chain construction, a technology which had been in use for nearly a century. Several other bridges of similar construction spanned the Ohio both upstream and downstream of the Silver Bridge. At the time of its construction the average weight of an automobile was about 1500-2000 pounds, and a truck was limited to about 10 tons. In 1967, when the Silver Bridge tumbled into the Ohio River during rush hour, with bumper to bumper traffic, those loads were much higher.

The bridge failed on December 15, 1967, and the victims who weren’t killed instantly when their vehicles went into the water either drowned or died from hypothermia. Forty-six people were killed. The towers of the suspension bridge were designed to rock slightly with the shifting loads, rather than have the chains pass over rocking saddles at the top. There were three spans of chains on each side of the bridge, anchor to tower, tower to tower, and tower to anchor. A failure of a single component on either side of the bridge had the potential to cause a complete failure of the bridge.

It was the bridge’s design which led to its failure in two ways. With no redundancy which would prevent structural failure in the event of component failure the bridge relied on diligent inspection and maintenance. Years later it was determined that the design of the bridge had contributed to its poor maintenance, as it made critical components nearly inaccessible for inspection. Engineer and historian Henry Petroski said of the bridge in a 2012 book, “If ever a design was to blame for a failure, this was it.” Petroski found that the design made inspection “all but impossible and failure all but inevitable.”

The bridge failed because a single eyebar, the first link of the chain which descended from the bridge’s north tower towards its anchor on the Ohio side, developed a crack. The crack was formed by wear on the link’s bearing, and deepened through internal corrosion. The technology used for bridge inspections at the time was incapable of detecting the crack. Once the eyebar failed the suspension bridge became a victim of a principle of its design, which is that of equilibrium. The complete collapse of the bridge was sudden and catastrophic, with the entire structure destroyed in about one minute.

The bridge was replaced by the Silver Memorial Bridge, about a mile downstream from where the Silver Bridge collapsed. The disaster raised concerns about similarly designed bridges. A bridge upstream at St. Mary’s was immediately closed for full inspection, and was demolished in 1971 without having reopened. Most bridges of similar construction have been replaced and modern inspections using non-destructive testing have identified faulty eyebars on other bridges allowing for them to be repaired (including the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge).

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
Howard Clifford flees the twisting Tacoma Narrows bridge as it begins to break apart. University of Washington

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge

The Tacoma Narrows is a strait in Puget Sound which separates Tacoma from Kitsap Peninsula, where in the 1930s there was a strong military presence, including the US Naval base at Bremerton and the Army facilities at Fort Lewis and McChord Field. The US military were strong supporters of a bridge linking the peninsula to Tacoma, and a plan was devised for a conventional suspension bridge similar to the Golden Gate Bridge. The prevailing winds in the Narrows led to the plan being modified to produce a thinner than conventional deck, which made it lighter, stiffened by plate girders. This also reduced costs of construction and the modified plan was used when the bridge was built.

The decision to use the modified plan meant that the much lighter deck was insufficiently rigid and thus less able to resist wind forces. This problem wasn’t apparent until after completion of the towers and cable system allowed for construction of the span. Construction workers felt significant vibrations on the towers, and the deck was reported to move several feet, rising and falling like waves. The movement was so prevalent that the bridge was given the nickname Galloping Gertie by the construction crews as the engineers examined ways to reduce the movement and stabilize the vibrations it caused to the other components of the bridge.

Several proposals were examined and applied to the bridge as construction continued. These included the use of tie downs to the deck which were anchored ashore. The tie downs snapped when the bridge bucked. Additional cable stays were added which secured the deck to the suspension cables, but they had little effect on reducing either motion or vibration. Hydraulic pads were then installed between the deck and the towers, to act as cushions which would suppress the motion. These were damaged by sand blasting prior to the bridge being painted, and thus rendered incapable of performing the task for which they were designed, because the seals were broken and the fluid within escaped.

The bridge, which was a toll bridge, opened to the public on July 1, 1940. From the first motorists using the bridge reported feeling the sensation of rising and falling as the traversed the span. Almost as soon as the bridge was in use studies were underway to find a means of controlling the movement, but the bridge remained open to the public, with no warnings regarding its safety. On November 7, four months after opening, the bridge collapsed when a phenomenon known as aeroelastic flutter caused it to twist and turn in the wind like a gigantic streamer, before breaking apart and falling into the Narrows. The only casualty was a cocker spaniel.

While the wind induced the failure of the bridge by creating the motion of the deck, it was the flutter which resulted that brought down the bridge by spreading to the other components of the bridge. This caused the failure of several cables, each of which caused a shifting of loads which led to further failures, until the entire center span broke apart and fell. The bridge was eventually replaced after the shortages of steel and manpower caused by the Second World War were alleviated and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was completed in 1950. It still stands, joined by a parallel bridge which shares the traffic load, which opened in 2007.

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
The dark spots on the dam face indicate water seepage as the dam begins to fail. USGS

St. Francis Dam

In the early twentieth century the majority of the water used by citizens of Los Angeles came to the city via the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which had been designed and built under the authority of William Mulholland (and is still used today). Mulholland envisioned a city reservoir created by a dam, which would ensure adequate water for the city in the event of drought, or of damage to the aqueduct. The dam would also be used as a source for electricity for the growing city. The dam was built on a site which held geological obstacles well known to Mulholland; he had personally discovered some of them. Construction of the dam began in 1924.

The dam was built in the San Francisquito Canyon, of curved concrete stepped face design, and by 1926 was of sufficient completion to begin filling the reservoir. In March of that year filling began and almost immediately cracks appeared in several locations on the dam, with water seepage evident. In April seepage pipes were installed to collect the water which gathered near the base of the dam and route it to the area occupied by the dam keeper. Meanwhile, as the water continued to rise in the reservoir, cracks and additional seepage appeared along the dam face and where it was anchored in the geologic deficiencies which Mulholland had identified before construction began.

The dam itself was mostly dry, most of the seepage was along the seam of where poured concrete was joined to the natural rock of the canyon walls on which the dam was anchored. Water oozed through and around the natural rock and the concrete, steadily eroding it away. Rather than drain the reservoir and address the issue, problems with the aqueduct were threatening the water supply of the city, and increasing the amount of the water contained in the reservoir was Mulholland’s primary concern. More and more seepage was detected, but efforts to fill the reservoir to capacity continued.

In March 1928 significant leaks were known around the abutments of concrete and rock. Essentially the entire structure was being sawed from its moorings by the erosive flow of the water. On March 12, 1928 the dam suffered a catastrophic failure. The breach was such that the entire reservoir was drained in just over an hour as a cascade of water raced down the canyon. The wall of water was over fifty feet high as it swept down on the towns of Fillmore and Bardsdale, destroyed much of Santa Paula and then reached the sea. Many bodies of victims were never found, likely washed out to sea after drowning in the flood. Officially there were 417 fatalities.

The cause of the failure was the defective manner in which the foundations had been attached to the natural rock, which allowed the water, under great pressure from the amount of water in the reservoir behind it, to cut through the rock. Essentially the entire dam was simply shouldered aside as cracks yielded to the water pressure. The center section remained more or less in place after the abutments on both sides were swept away, acting like a thumb on the end of a hose, increasing the velocity of the water being directed around it. It was eventually demolished. The St. Francis dam was not rebuilt, another dam and reservoir system was built elsewhere.

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
The loss of USS Thresher led the Navy to make changes in the way in which it designed, built, operated and maintained its submarines. US Navy

USS Thresher

USS Thresher was the lead ship of its class, which became known as the Permit class after Thresher was lost at sea in April 1963. It was built to be the quietest and fastest submarine in the world at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard beginning in 1958, and was commissioned into the fleet in 1961. Thresher was designed as a platform for new and emerging technologies in undersea warfare, and spent its all too brief career in the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea, operating with other vessels of the US Navy before returning to Portsmouth for evaluation of the ships systems, upgrades, and repairs. In April 1963 it was again ready for sea for tests.

On April 9, 1963 Thresher, accompanied by the submarine rescue ship Skylark, began its dive trials as part of its post shipyard availability tests. About 200 miles east of Cape Cod Thresher dove, surfaced, and dove again remaining submerged throughout the night. The following morning Thresher contacted Skylark and announced the initiation of deep dive tests, in which the submarine was to submerge in steps to its test depth, leveling off and checking all ship’s systems as the crew worked the vessel down. Skylark received messages which were garbled, though it was understood that the submarine was attempting to blow its ballast tanks with high pressure air.

That message alone was an indication of a serious problem encountered during the dive. One further garbled message was heard, and then nothing more. That evening Navy officials began notifying next-of kin that the submarine was missing and by the following morning it was announced that Thresher, only days after an overhaul, had been lost with all hands, and with several civilian shipyard workers and technical representatives aboard. It was the first loss of a nuclear submarine, and the investigation into what happened, while speculative in many ways, changed the way in which nuclear submarines were built and the crews trained.

The loss of Thresher, in the company of another vessel and with civilian experts onboard as well as a highly trained crew caused the Navy to initiate procedures which ensured redundancy of essential systems, and controls over the way work is accomplished aboard the vessels, both in port and at sea. It was believed that a single brazed weld failed, which led to a sequence of events which caused the loss of the ship, including freezing in the ballast control systems, and lack of the ability to quickly control leaks. The Navy initiated the SUBSAFE program, which addressed the issues of design, training, materials, and inspections. All submarines must be SUBSAFE certified.

Since the inception of SUBSAFE the United States Navy has lost just one submarine, USS Scorpion. Scorpion had not been SUBSAFE certified at the time of its loss, to causes still the subject of debate. When Thresher imploded the event was recorded on underwater sonar, and analysis of the recording revealed that the implosion event was a shock 0.1 seconds in duration, meaning that the 129 men aboard the vessel never felt anything once the ship was at crush depth.

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
Although praised by the men who actually used them the US Army declared the Camel Corps a failure in 1866. Wikimedia

The US Army Camel Corps

Not all failures lead to accidents. In the late 1840s a recommendation made its way through the US War Department to import camels to the United States for evaluation of their use as beasts of burden. The Army was especially interested to learn how well they would fare in the Southwest and across the Great Plains. Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was intrigued and supported the idea, and after becoming Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, he managed to gain the support of enough congressmen to obtain some funding for the experiment. On July 4 1855 Army Major Henry Wayne departed New York on the aptly named USS Supply to acquire the camels in the Mediterranean region.

Thirty-three camels returned with Wayne, and with some foresight he acquired pack saddles, reasoning that no American saddle maker would know how to make them. He also brought back experienced camel drivers. During the voyage one male camel died, but two calves were born, so that the expedition arrived in Texas with more camels than they had when they left the Arab lands. Supply was immediately dispatched back for another herd of camels and the animals were herded to Camp Verde. After Supply returned with the second load of camels and more drivers, and the loss of some of the original herd to disease, the US Army owned seventy camels in its experimental Camel Corps.

At first the camels proved to be of use as pack animals, a group of 25 camels made a trek from Camp Verde to Fort Defiance in the New Mexico Territory, carrying 600 pounds of supplies each. The leader of the expedition, Edward Beale, continued on to his own ranch in California, where he offered to keep the camels, an offer which was refused. Other uses in the arid areas of the southwest led Army lieutenant Edward Hartz to comment that the camels were superior to horses and mules when used as pack animals, and no less a personage than Colonel Robert E. Lee, who had ordered their use in an expedition in the spring of 1860, was impressed with their performance.

In the Civil War, the camels in the far west were of little use. Those in Camp Verde, Texas, became property of the Confederacy. There were 80 camels which fell into the hands of the Confederates, who had little use for them, there were more than 100 by the time the Union regained control of the camp. Curiously, though Jefferson Davis had been an early and avid supporter of their use as US Secretary of War, he did not advocate for them as President of the Confederate States. After the war the Union government collected the remaining camels, selling most of them to lawyer and judge Bethel Coopwood.

What he did with them is unknown. There was still a contingent of camels in California, in the vicinity of Bakersfield, and some of the camels undoubtedly found their way into traveling circuses and the shows which criss-crossed the opening of the west. Despite receiving the praise of the officers and men who used them the camels never really impressed the controllers of the budget in Washington and the Army’s experimental Camel Corps was disbanded. It was considered a failure. The Army mule retained its status as the primary beast of burden in use by the US Army, and would continue to until World War I.

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
The Ashtabula Bridge collapsed as an eleven car train was being pulled across its span. Wikimedia

The Ashtabula Bridge Disaster

The Ashtabula Bridge was a railroad bridge which was only about 1000 feet from the railroad station in Ashtabula, Ohio. It crossed the Ashtabula River, the tracks about 75 feet above the water. Its designer was Amasa Stone, an industrialist whom in the 1840s built hundreds of bridges in New England, promoting and using the basic design developed by his brother in law, William Howe. The Howe Truss Bridge was used for both roads and railroads throughout New England, nearly all of them of wood. In 1850 Stone moved to Cleveland and began a second career in railroad construction and operation.

As the president and construction supervisor of a small local railroad which merged with the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway, Stone both approved the design of the bridge at Ashtabula, which was of his Howe Truss pattern, and supervised its construction. The Howe Truss design had been developed for the wooden bridges of shorter span which were prevalent in New England. The supporting trusses of the Ashtabula Bridge were of iron, anchored to the banks of the river by masonry. The bridge was built to span 165 feet, and the engineer in charge at the railroad, Charles Collins, later said he considered the design to be experimental.

During the afternoon of December 29, 1876 the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway train named the Pacific Princess departed from Erie, Pennsylvania, traveling west towards Ohio. The train consist was 11 cars pulled by a pair of steam locomotives. It arrived at the bridge at about 7.30 that evening, needing to cross the bridge to arrive at the station only 1000 feet away. Accordingly it was slowing as it approached and crossed the bridge. The first locomotive made it across before the bridge collapsed beneath the rest of the train, and the remaining locomotive and the cars plunged to the river below.

The cars were equipped with heating stoves and lamps, fueled with kerosene, and many of the wooden cars were soon in flames. The collapse of the bridge and the noise of the crash brought rescuers to the scene quickly, but they were hampered by the cold of the water and the heat of the flames as they tried to find survivors. Ninety-two of the 159 passengers and crew on the train were killed. Only three escaped without any injury, they were the crew of the first locomotive. Ashtabula had no hospital, so the injured were treated in private homes.

A coroner’s jury investigated and Charles Collins testified that the design and supervision of the construction had been Stone’s responsibilities. The jury found the design of the bridge to be at fault, the construction had been poor and also blamed the railroad for the dangerous manner of providing heat and light which led to the fires. Collins committed suicide after testifying though later evidence suggested he may have been murdered. A state investigation later blamed the design, the use of inferior materials in construction, and a lack of maintenance. Stone was not censured for his role in the building of the bridge nor for the accident itself.

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
The Bureau of Reclamation has not yet attempted to rebuild the Teton Dam following its failure. US Bureau of Reclamation

The Teton Dam

The US Bureau of Reclamation, part of the Department of the Interior, is responsible for water resource management as it applies to the diversion of water for its delivery to consumers. Dams are one of the tools which they use in that role, which besides creating reservoirs for the routing of water for drinking and irrigation also creates hydro-electric power. In 1972, after years of debate, lawsuits, protests by environmentalists, and controversy over its necessity, the Bureau of Reclamation began construction of a dam on the Teton River in Idaho, despite geologists’ claims that the area was both seismically active and composed of material largely unsuitable for the purpose.

The area around the dam and beneath it contained numerous fissures and cracks which the builders decided could be sealed with grout. More fissures were discovered as the dam was under construction, which raised the cost of the project and delayed work on the actual dam. Some of what were called fissures in public discussions of the project were actually void spaces the size of caves. Some were determined to be of no consequence as far as the function of the dam was concerned, and left alone. The effect was as if one was building a sand castle while using a grill for a base, with perforated sides.

As the earthen dam was erected, hollow spaces undetected from the surface were created inside the dam itself, as some of the earth settled into cracks and fissures without collapsing the surface soil. These hollow spaces ran through the interior of the earthen dam like tunnels, with no evidence of their existence visible to an observer at the surface. In November of 1975 the dam construction phase was completed and the filling of the reservoir was scheduled to begin. Filling the reservoir was to be at a rate of about one foot per day. In the spring of 1976, as a result of the heavy snows of the preceding winter the rate of filling was increased to about double the original rate.

In May 1976 the rate was doubled again, and in early June leaks were apparent. Neither the dam’s spillway nor its main outlet were ready for service, they were at the time blocked in preparation for painting that month. The emergency outlet was serviceable, but insufficient to relieve enough pressure on the dam if it began to fail. The reservoir was near full capacity. On June 5, a Saturday, dark spots appeared on the face of the dam, indicating the presence of water. The spots grew both larger and darker. As water seeped through it carried more and more of the earthen structure with it. Just before noon the dam collapsed as the water from the reservoir poured through.

Downstream thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed by the onrush of water. The Hibbard and Rexburg area lost over 80% of the structures and buildings in their communities. The lower watershed of the Teton River had most of its topsoil stripped away. Rebuilding took years. Lawsuits and claims against the Bureau of Reclamation began almost immediately, eventually totaling $320 million by 1987. The official investigation did not assign blame for the catastrophic failure of the dam, announcing that it was a combination of geological factors and engineering and construction decisions. As of the early twenty-first century there are no plans in place to rebuild the dam.

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
Emergency workers and volunteers help the injured following the collapse of elevated walkways. Kansas City Star

The Hyatt Regency Walkways

The Hyatt Regency in downtown Kansas City was plagued with difficulties during its construction, including the collapse of a section of its roof over the atrium in 1979, an event which was attributed to a structural failure. When the hotel opened in 1980, it was acclaimed for its lobby space, which featured an open atrium of several stories in height, crossed by walkways which connected the open spaces of the hotel’s wings with walkways on the second, third, and fourth floors, which from the lobby floor beneath appeared as dramatic views. The fourth floor walkway was directly above that of the second.

The walkways were constructed of reinforced concrete, steel, and glass. They were about 120 feet in length, spanning the lobby below. Each weighed about 32 tons. The third and fourth floor walkways were suspended from the ceiling, with the second floor walkway suspended from the fourth floor walkway which ran directly above it, a modification from the original plan which was adopted during construction. It meant that the rods which supported the fourth floor walkway were actually supporting two walkways, which exceeded the limits of their design. The support beams underneath the fourth floor walkway (which were connected by suspenders from the ceiling) were supporting both floors.

The hotel had been open for just over one year when a tea dance was held in the atrium on July 17, 1981. The activities in the atrium drew the attention of many of the guests in the hotel, and each of the suspended walkways held spectators who paused on them to view the activities below. About 40 people were gathered on the second floor walkway, with another fifteen to twenty on the fourth floor walkway directly above. The third floor walkway was crowded as well. Witnesses later reported hearing several snapping noises before the second and fourth floor walkways plunged to the atrium floor.

There were 114 total deaths and 219 injuries. It took more than 14 hours to extricate all of the dead and injured from the scene, which required the support of volunteers from local construction companies and the use of cranes to remove the walkways. In addition to the more than sixty tons of debris on top of the victims, the entire atrium was drenched from the hotel’s sprinkler system, which had been broken by the fall of the walkways and distributed its contents onto the atrium floor. The front doors of the hotel sealed the water in the lobby, and it continued to rise during the rescue operation, the sprinklers being connected to water tanks rather than the city supply main.

The investigation determined that the modification made to the design during construction led to the fourth floor walkway support beams being barely able to support the weight of the fourth floor walkway, and the additional demand to support the second floor walkway ensured that the system would fail, as it did. The third floor walkway was removed and a second floor walkway, supported by columns rather than suspension, was added when the atrium was rebuilt. It was later revealed that the modification which led to the catastrophic failure of the support system was discussed and approved in a telephone call, without reference to drawings or specifications.

10 Engineering or Bureaucratic Failures and the Impact they had on American History
Boston Elevated Railway tracks damaged by the Great Molasses Disaster in 1919. Wikimedia

The Boston Molasses Flood

In January 1919 the North End of Boston, Massachusetts was inundated by a wave of molasses which reached a height of 25 feet at its peak, and moved through the streets of the neighborhood at speeds which reached 35 miles per hour. The Atlantic Avenue elevated train tracks were damaged when the molasses hit its support girders with sufficient force to bend them, derailing a car. Several buildings were forced from their foundations. Men and animals – Boston still being filled with horses at the time – were literally stuck in the molasses, and died from suffocation. As in quicksand, the harder they struggled the more difficult it was to extricate themselves.

There were over 150 people injured by the molasses and the debris which flew in the rush of air which accompanied it. At least 20 people were killed. Many of the dead were covered in a molasses glaze which rendered them unrecognizable. Rescuers searched for casualties from the flood for four days. The streets were cleaned using salt water pumped by fireboats in Boston Harbor. The harbor remained a murky brown color for months after the flood. Rescue and cleanup workers helped spread the molasses throughout the city, tracked by shoes and clothes, and Boston was a sticky town for a long time.

The flood was caused by the failure of a storage tank containing about 2.2 million gallons of molasses which was being fermented to produce ethanol. The tank was owned by the Purity Distilling Company. The fifty foot tall fermentation tank had been leaking for some time, rather than repair the tank the company painted it brown to hide the leaks. It was later learned that the tank was constructed of steel too thin to withstand the pressure from contents when full. The tank had been filled to different levels throughout its use history, creating varying stresses on the too brittle steel.

The day before the disaster the tank had been filled to near capacity, and the fermentation process created carbon dioxide which increased the pressure within. Poorly designed and inadequately maintained, the tank burst apart near a manhole cover, where stress cracks yielded to the pressures within the tank. Just two days earlier molasses had been added to the tank, warmer than what was already stored, which made the whole more fluid. After the tank ruptured the molasses at first spread quickly until the colder Boston temperatures made it thicken, which slowed its movement and made it more difficult to extricate victims.

The Great Molasses Flood led to one of the earliest class action lawsuits in Massachusetts history. The United States Industrial Alcohol Company – owner of Purity – paid $600,000 to claimants through an out of court settlement after claiming that the tank had been the target of saboteurs. The tank and the Purity offices, which had been flattened in the flood, were not rebuilt and the land was used as a railyard by the Boston Elevated Railway. Today the area is owned by the City of Boston and is used as a park, with the site of the disaster marked by a commemorative plaque.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Run for your lives”, by David McCullough, American Heritage Magazine, June 1966

“The Collapse of the Silver Bridge”, by Chris LeRose, West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, Fall, 2001

“Tacoma Narrows Bridges”, by Henry Petroski, American Scientist, 2009

“Man-Made Disaster: The Story of Saint Francis Dam”, by Charles F. Outland, 2002

“USS Thresher (SSN 593) 3 August 1961 – 10 April 1963″, by Vice Admiral E.W. Grenfall, US Naval Institute Press, Proceedings, April 1, 2013

“The United States Army Used Camels Until After the Civil War”, by Rose Eveleth, Smithsonian Magazine, December 26, 2013

“Disaster echoes 140 later (sic) Bridge collapse ended, altered many lives; hurt Ashtabula’s growth”, by Dave Deluca, Ashtabula Star Beacon, December 29, 2016

“Cadillac Desert”, by Marc Reisner, 1993

“Hyatt skywalks collapse changed lives forever”, by Kevin Murphy, Kansas City Star, July 9, 2011

“Without Warning, Molasses in January Surged Over Boston”, by Edwards Park, Smithsonian Magazine, November 1983