Three Centuries of Molasses in Massachusetts

By Andrea Cronin, Reader Services

The molasses trade has a long and sticky history in Massachusetts. Though sugar is far more common in the kitchen cupboard today, molasses lingers in the cultural lore of Boston. Looking back over that tradition one sees how far back those roots go. In a letter to Judge William Tudor on 11 August 1818 John Adams credited molasses as helping usher in American independence:

Witts may laugh at our fondness for Molasses & we ought all join in the laugh with as much good humour as General Lincoln did, Genal Washington however always asserted & proved that Virginians loved Molasses as well as New Englandmen did. I know not why we should blush to confess that Molasses was an essential Ingredient in American Independence. Many great Events have proceeded from much smaller causes.

How could the secret ingredient in pot roasts have influenced the course of history in Massachusetts and the nation? In the 18th century, the Sugar Islands experienced an exponential demand for sugar from European colonizers. There was profit not only in sugar but in distilling the by-product of sugar production, molasses, into rum. The abundance of molasses gave rise in part to the ‘Triangle Trade’ exchange: New England rum to West Africa and Europe, West African slaves to the Sugar Islands, and Sugar Islands’ molasses to New England rum distilleries. With the Molasses Act of 1733 Great Britain imposed a tax on molasses imported from foreign colonies, such as the French or Dutch West Indies. Some point to this act as the stirrings of the beginning of the American Revolution, as the tax struck fear in the northern colonies by affecting their rum trade.

Oh, the rum! With incoming shipments of Sugar Islands’ molasses, Massachusetts entertained a booming rum industry. There were over 25 distilleries in Boston alone by the mid-eighteenth century. The surrounding cities, including Watertown, Haverhill, Charlestown, and Medford soon followed the “city upon a hill” into rum distillation.

Then, nearly a century after Adams wrote to Judge Tudor molasses literally engulfed part of Boston. Yesterday marked the 94th anniversary of the great Boston molasses flood, affecting Commercial Street in the North End on 15 January 1919. It was on this unusually warm day that the US Industrial Alcohol/Purity Distilling Company tank filled with 2,300,000 gallons of molasses spilled into the streets and harbor. The flood killed 21 individuals and injured more than 150 others while damaging an estimated $100,000,000 of property. The 1919 tragedy inundated the newpapers with conspiracies and conjecture about how the tank had failed so epically. It is said that even now it is not uncommon to hear that on a hot summer day there is a lingering scent of molasses in the North End.

The Westland Gate

By Daniel Hinchen, Reader Services

Walking just a few minutes south down the Fenway from the MHS, one arrives at the main entrance to the Back Bay Fens. At the intersection of the Fenway and Westland Avenue stands the Johnson Gates, more commonly known as the Westland Gate.

Erected in 1905, the Westland Gate is composed of a pair of large marble piers with columns on each corner and bronze lion head fountain spouts on each face. Beneath two of the spouts are marble basins. Flanking the piers are balustrades and two marble benches. The piers are constructed of white marble, while the balustrades and benches are Tennessee pink marble. While the fountains used to function and served as a water trough for animals, this use discontinued in 1919 due to an epidemic among horses.

The gates were originally dubbed the Johnson Memorial Fountain after a wealthy Boston businessman, Jesse Johnson, whose widow, Ellen Cheney Johnson, donated the money to fund their construction in his memory.

Architect Guy Lowell was commissioned to design the fountain. Lowell is better known as the architect who designed the Museum of Fine Arts just a bit further down the road. In addition, Lowell designed several buildings on the campus of Harvard University, the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord (which also features a sculpture by Daniel Chester French, who designed the John Boyle O’Reilly memorial on the Fenway), and the New York State Supreme Courthouse in New York City.

The fountains underwent their first restoration in 1980, at which time inconsistencies in the stone were addressed and the whole gate received a protective treatment to resist graffiti. A rededication ceremony was held in August of that year. There was a subsequent restoration in 1990. Since then, the fountains have remained untouched, though as of 2008 the Westland Gate and other fountains around the city are on a list of projects to be repaired by the Parks Department.

While the MHS does not have any material relating specifically to the Westland Gate/Johnson Memorial Fountain, there are plenty of items authored by Guy Lowell. Check ABIGAIL to see what there is!

John Boyle O’Reilly Memorial

By Daniel Hinchen, Reader Services

Detail of memorial to John Boyle O'Reilly featuring his face only

John Boyle O’Reilly’s faults were few, his virtues many. He did his work fearlessly and brilliantly. He did it, too, with a conspicuous ability which was seen and appreciated by men of all classes and men of all creeds. He has gone from among us, but he has left a record which the land of his nativity, his adopted country, and the city in which he lived will always cherish with pride, with honor, and with respect. Col. Charles H. Taylor (Memorial of John Boyle O’Reilly from the City of Boston, Boston: By Order of Board of Aldermen, 1891)

Across the street from the MHS, and facing back at it, is a large bronze bust commemorating  John Boyle O’Reilly, an Irish-born poet, newspaperman, author, Statue of John Boyle OReilly taken from Boylston Streetand social activist who brought his passion and patriotism to Boston. He was a giant in the city and won the admiration and respect of all those he met. Upon his death in 1890, thousands of people descended on Tremont Temple to pay their respects.

The memorial that stands directly across from the MHS was designed by Daniel Chester French and erected in 1896. French was responsible for creating such iconic sculptures as The Minute Man statue standing in Concord, MA, a statue of a seated John Harvard that is in Harvard Yard, and the giant sculpture of Abraham Lincoln that occupies the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

French’s monument to John Boyle O’Reilly features a large bronze bust of O’Reilly on one side. On the reverse is a sculpture of Erin (representing Ireland), who is weaving a wreath and is flanked by her two sons, Poetry and Patriotism. Back of John Boyle OReilly Statue taken from Fenway The figures are placed in front of a backdrop composed of a Celtic cross and Celtic knots carved into the stone.

While there is no known large body of O’Reilly’s personal papers, the MHS holds letters written by O’Reilly scattered through our collection, including material in the Frederic Jesup Stimson Papers, the DeGrasse-Howard Papers, and the William Eustis Russell Papers. The MHS also hold a number of published items authored by O’Reilly, including his novel Moondyne: A Story from the Under-world (1879), and transcriptions of several speeches he made in his lifetime. The Boston Public Library newspaper room provides access to the full run of the Boston archdiocesan newspaper Pilot, including the issues produced during O’Reilly’s tenure as editor. To learn more about the life, death, and times of John Boyle O’Reilly, visit the MHS library to discover additional source materials.

The New Riding Club of Boston

By Daniel Hinchen, Reader Services

The Boston area is known for some very famous examples of architecture. Photograph of 52 Hemenway Street, front of buildingJust think of the variously colored steeples that dot the campus of Harvard in nearby Cambridge; the golden dome of the State House; and of course, the grand brownstones that line Newbury and Beacon Streets and Commonwealth Avenue. One architectural style that is not well represented in Boston, though, is the Tudor Revival style. And yet, just around the corner from the MHS, among the rows of stone and brick apartment buildings, is a fine example of that style.

At 52 Hemenway Street there stands a three-storied building with a steeply pitched roof, high chimneys, dormer windows, and just a touch of the half-timbered feature that makes the Tudor Revival style so noticeable. While it may be missing the herringbone brickwork and mullioned windows of most structures in this style, it is nonetheless distinguishable as a Tudor Revival building.

The building has served as a home to two very different organizations. And while it may look out of place in its neighborhood, it has been standing for 120 years and has a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Designed by Willard T. Sears, 52 Hemenway was first home to the New Riding Club of Boston. Photo of side of 52 Hemenway StreetA quick look at the building’s exterior shows one repeated feature that hints to its original use: around the building are several large portals — some arched — resembling modern-day garage doors giving the viewer the impression of stables. 

Built in 1891, it allowed for easy access to the bridle paths in the nearby Back Bay Fens, which had recently been completed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Inside the building there were several stables for horses, as well as a riding ring. It retained this make-up until 1934 when it was acquired by the Badminton and Tennis Club.* After the take-over, the riding ring was converted to tennis courts. Finally, in 1985 the remaining stables were converted into residential apartments.

The MHS does not hold  much original material relating to either of these organizations in our collections. We do hold original copies of the published by-laws and rules of the New Riding Club, from 1920 and 1924. Interested neighbors may view these items in our library.


*The Badminton and Tennis Club is affiliated with the Boston Tennis and Racquet Club whose home is in the Back Bay at 939 Boylston St. which was built in 1902 and contributes to the area’s designation as a National Register Historic District.


Happy Birthday, Fenway Park!

By Elaine Grublin


Today hordes of people — Red Sox fans and baseball stadium aficionados alike — will descend on Fenway Park to celebrate the 100th anniversary of that venerable stadium’s opening in 1912.

We at the MHS are lucky. Being just a short walk from the ball park allows us to watch as a sea of red and blue outfitted fans make their way down Boylston Street toward the park for each home game. This morning, I was struck by the fact that the MHS has stood at 1154 Boylston since 1898, more than a decade before the park opened.  It made me wonder if Charles Francis Adams, MHS president from 1895 to 1915, and other MHS members stood before one of the large first floor windows and watched folks make their way to Fenway Park 100 years ago today. If they did, I would imagine they did not worry so much if the end of the day game coincided with quitting time at the MHS — as the current staff, anticipating traffic woes, now does.

The two images here are postcards held in our collection. The cards, sent to members of the Pond family in Connecticut, were posted in January and March 1914. Although there is no evidence on the cards how much before that date they were printed, it is safe to assume they offer a fun glimpse of Fenway close to the time of its opening. 

One final thought on Fenway’s special day. Although the season is off to a bit of a rocky start, let’s hope the Sox bring home another one of these!  Click here to learn more about the 1912 World Series medal held by the MHS.