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The source of what became known as the “Great Molasses Flood” was a 50-foot-tall steel holding tank located on Commercial Street in Boston’s North End. Its sugary-sweet contents were the property of United States Industrial Alcohol, which took regular shipments of molasses from the Caribbean and used them to produce alcohol for liquor and munitions manufacturing. The company had built the tank in 1915, when World War I had increased demand for industrial alcohol, but the construction process had been rushed and haphazard. The container started to groan and peel, and it often leaked molasses onto the street. At least one USIA employee warned his bosses that it was structurally unsound, yet outside of re-caulking it, the company took little action. By 1919, the largely Italian and Irish immigrant families on Commercial Street had grown accustomed to hearing rumbles and metallic creaks emanating from the tank.
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Temperatures on the afternoon of January 15, 1919, were over 40 degrees—unusually mild for a Boston winter—and Commercial Street hummed with the sound of laborers, clopping horses and a nearby elevated train platform. At the Engine 31 firehouse, a group of men were eating their lunch while playing a friendly game of cards. Near the molasses tank, eight-year-old Antonio di Stasio, his sister Maria and another boy named Pasquale Iantosca were gathering firewood for their families. At his family’s home overlooking the tank, barman Martin Clougherty was still dozing in his bed, having put in a late-night shift at his saloon, the Pen and Pencil Club.
At around 12:40 p.m., the mid-afternoon calm was broken by the sound of a metallic roar. Before residents had time to register what was happening, the recently refilled molasses tank ripped wide open and unleashed 2.3 million gallons of dark-brown sludge. “A rumble, a hiss—some say a boom and a swish—and the wave of molasses swept out,” the Boston Post later wrote. A fifteen-foot wall of syrup cascaded over Commercial Street at 35 miles per hour, obliterating all the people, horses, buildings and electrical poles in its path. Even the solid steel supports of the elevated train platform were snapped. Antonio di Stasio, Maria di Stasio and Pasquale Iantosca were all instantly swallowed by the torrent. Maria was suffocated to death by the molasses, and Pasquale was killed after being struck by a railroad car. Antonio lived, but suffered a severe head injury from being flung into a light post.
The Boston Globe would later write that the force of the molasses wave caused buildings to “cringe up as though they were made of pasteboard.” The Engine 31 firehouse was knocked clean off its foundation, causing its second story to collapse into its first. The nearby Clougherty house, meanwhile, was swept away and dashed against the elevated train platform. Martin Clougherty, having just woken up, watched his home crumble around him before being thrown into the current. “I was in bed on the third floor of my house when I heard a deep rumble,” he remembered. “When I awoke, it was in several feet of molasses.” Clougherty nearly drowned in the gooey whirlpool before climbing atop his own bed frame, which he discovered floating nearby. The barman used the makeshift boat to rescue his sister, Teresa, but his mother and younger brother were among those killed in the disaster.
Almost as quickly as it had crashed, the molasses wave receded, revealing a half-mile swath of crushed buildings, crumpled bodies and waist-deep muck. “Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell,” a Boston Post reporter wrote. “Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was.”
Police and firefighters arrived at the disaster scene within minutes, as did over a hundred sailors from the Navy ship USS Nantucket. The first responders struggled to wade through the quicksand-like molasses, which had begun to harden in the winter chill, but they soon began plucking survivors from the wreckage. The most dramatic rescue took place at the Engine 31 firehouse, where several of the men from the lunchtime card game were trapped in a molasses-flooded pocket of space on the collapsed first floor. Workers freed the survivors after several hours of cutting away floorboards and debris, but not before one of the firefighters lost his strength and drowned.
Over the next several days, rescue workers continued to sift through the ruins, shooting molasses-trapped horses and recovering bodies. The human toll would eventually climb to 21 dead and another 150 injured, but many of the deceased remained missing for several days. The remains of one victim, a wagon driver named Cesare Nicolo, were not fished out of nearby Boston Harbor until almost four months after the flood.
In the wake of the disaster, the victims filed 119 different lawsuits against United States Industrial Alcohol. The plaintiffs argued that the molasses tank had been too thin and shoddily built to safely hold its contents, but USIA offered a very different explanation for the rupture: sabotage. The flood had occurred during a period of increased terrorist activity from Italian anarchist groups, which had previously been blamed for dozens of bombings across the country. In 1918, when World War I was still underway, an unidentified man had even called USIA’s office and threatened to destroy the tank with dynamite. With this in mind, the company alleged that the tank had been intentionally blown up by “evilly disposed persons.”
The lawsuits against USIA were eventually combined into a mammoth legal proceeding that dragged on for five years. Over 1,500 exhibits were introduced and some 1,000 witnesses testified including explosives experts, flood survivors and USIA employees. The closing arguments alone took 11 weeks, but in April 1925, state auditor Hugh W. Ogden finally ruled that United States Industrial Alcohol was to blame for the disaster. Rather than a bomb, he concluded that the company’s poor planning and lack of oversight had led to the tank’s structural failure. USIA would later pay the flood victims and their family members $628,000 in damages—the equivalent of around $8 million today.
By the time the settlement was finally paid, the area around Commercial Street had long recovered from the multi-million-gallon molasses tsunami. Over 300 workers had converged on the scene in the days after the disaster to remove wreckage and debris, and firefighters later used brooms, saws and saltwater pumps to strip away the last of the syrupy residue. Even then, the sweet scent of molasses still hung over the North End for several weeks, and the waters of Boston Harbor remained stained brown until the summer.
The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 Killed Dozens and Left a Devastating Toll on Boston
January 15, 2019, marked the 100th anniversary of one of history&rsquos most bizarre disasters, Boston&rsquos Great Molasses Flood. This flood started shortly after noon on January 15, 1919, and took over 300 people about six months to thoroughly clean up. However, those living on Commercial Street in Boston&rsquos north end would be able to smell the disaster for decades to come. On top of that, it would take about six years before there would be an end to the trial which came out of this strange tragedy.
Unknown to everyone at the time, the story of Boston&rsquos Great Molasses Flood of 1919 would begin four years earlier in 1915. Purity Distilling Company, which was also known as the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, built a tank to hold molasses. Not only can molasses be used for cooking, but it can also be used to make rum. The company knew that they would need a large tank to hold all the molasses. They even knew they needed to build the tank cheaply and as quickly as possible.
A view of the Great Molasses Flood aftermath, looking north across North End Park on January 16, 1919. Boston Globe Archive.
Steps Towards the Bizarre Disaster
The United States Industrial Alcohol Company hired one guy to build the tank for the molasses. He was not an engineer and did not know how to read a blueprint. On top of this, the company did not hire any engineers or other professionals to make sure the supplies for the tank or the tank itself was safe to use. Part of the reason for this was the company did not legally have to. The other part of the reason was that this would have cost the company more money and they did not want to spend more money.
The company decided to the tank should be 50 feet tall and 90 feet wide. They wanted to make sure the tank could hold 2.5 million gallons of molasses because their need for molasses was increasing and they only felt it would continue to grow. The company was right about this as prohibition was about to set in and the United States Industrial Alcohol Company was one of the companies which would be able to produce alcohol legally, especially during the time of the disaster.
Commercial Street in Boston. iStock/Boxer Boston.
With the building of the tank completed, the company immediately began to use it. They did not worry about the tank getting inspected because they felt they had bought just the right supplies to hold the 2.5 million gallons of molasses. However, people around Commercial Street quickly began not only to notice a nasty smell but also see the tank leaking around its corners. On top of this, one of the company&rsquos own employees told his boss about the leaking he had noticed around the tank.
The Great Molasses Flood of 1919
15th January 1919 was a mild day for the time of year in Boston, and as the time approached one o&rsquoclock in the afternoon the city&rsquos north end was alive with workers on their lunch break. The air was filled with the usual sounds of an early-twentieth century city &ndash the rumble of trains, the clatter of horses&rsquo footsteps, the distant noise of heavy industry. But some of the city&rsquos more alert residents could hear another noise that afternoon. A quiet, low, consistent growl coming from a factory owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) company. From one of its large tanks, in fact. Filled to near capacity with molasses &ndash a sweet liquid used to produce alcoholic drinks and ammunition &ndash the tank had been deemed unsafe by several inspectors but the company had not taken any action to correct this. At one o&rsquoclock that afternoon, it finally did what it had been threatening to do for years. It burst.
Over two million gallons of the dark, sticky liquid poured into the streets surrounding the factory in a sweet but deadly tsunami. The event lasted only a few minutes, but the carnage it left behind took months to clear up and years for people to recover from. In all, 21 people were killed and over 150 were injured, making it one of the worst disasters in US history, and certainly the most bizarre.
The tank in question, standing at 50ft tall and with a 90ft diameter, had been built in a hurry during the first world war, as weapons manufacturers increased their demand for the liquid, which could be used in grenades and rifles. Indeed, it had been so hurriedly manufactured that it did not undergo the usual test of being filled with water, and it leaked, creaked and groaned right from the very start. For years, local children would stand by the tank with cups to collect the sweet leaking liquid, as inspectors and workmen repeatedly warned the USIA that it was not structurally sound. The company ignored every single warning.
The war ended in November 1918, leaving the company with a large build up of leftover molasses. Over the following two months they poured it into the large tank to the point where it was nearly full to capacity, and by the middle of January 1919 it was clear to anyone who worked near it that it was not going to hold out for much longer.
The tank was probably going to burst at some point in 1919 anyway, but the fact that it happened on 15th January is probably down to the change in temperature that day. Boston had been gripped by a cold snap for the few weeks before, but 15th January was a much milder day and it is thought that this sudden change is what made the brittle metal finally give way.
Sarah Betancourt refers to the account of a local workman, Isaac Yetton, who was hauling car parts into a shed at around one o&rsquoclock when he heard a dramatic snap. He turned round and to his horror saw a huge wave of molasses bearing down on him. He tried to flee, but was easily outrun by the unforgiving wave and carried by it before slamming into a wall. He was saved by an onlooker throwing a ladder down for him to hold onto, but others were not so lucky. According to Chuck Lyons in History Today, a ten-year-old boy was killed when the wave threw a railway carriage on top of him, and a group of firefighters who had been enjoying their lunch break on the ground floor of their engine house were suffocated by the molasses, which spread so quickly and violently into their premises that the building was ripped from its foundations and they had virtually no chance of escape.
The aftermath of the flood. Just visible here are train tracks that snaked above the streets where the incident occured (history.com)
Molasses is much thicker and denser than water, so it is not accurate to imagine the wave as being similar to a tsunami of water. Rather, it was more like lava flowing from a volcano, slower than water but still too fast for people to outrun and more deadly to anyone it swept up. It was so powerful that it left railway tracks, which had circled above the factory, dangling precariously over the edge of their platforms. The fact that no trains hurtled over the edge is mostly down to Albert Leeman, a brakeman on a train that was passing the area at exactly the moment of the incident. He managed to bring his train to a stop in time, before racing back up the tracks to warn other approaching trains of the danger.
The immediate rescue efforts were conducted by over 100 sailors who had been stationed on a US army ship nearby. Before long the army and all three emergency services were on the scene. They managed to save many people, covered from head to toe in the sticky liquid and struggling to breathe or see, but still clinging to life. As the hours passed, the mission became one of recovery rather than rescue, as workers fished out the bodies of unfortunate people whose airways had been totally blocked by the molasses. The last dead body was recovered four months after the incident.
An aerial view of the devastation (wikipedia)
A return of cold weather in the days after the incident caused the liquid to harden, making it even harder to remove. It was a mammoth clean-up operation, involving fire department pumps and powerful hoses spraying sea water at the mess, as saltwater was more effective at breaking the molasses up. The whole city smelt of molasses for days, and emergency workers were covered in the stuff. It was truly a grim scene.
By the summer of 1920, over 100 lawsuits had been filed against the USIA. The company naturally denied all responsibility, suggesting that anarchists had placed a bomb by the tank, but was eventually found liable for the damage. Local prosecutors agitated to have the company charged with manslaughter, but a grand jury declined to indict them. Instead, the USIA came to a settlement in 1925 which saw them pay hundreds of thousands of dollars (multi-millions in today&rsquos money) in damages.
In the years following the incident, authorities in Boston made it mandatory for all construction projects in the city to be signed off by an architect and engineer and checked by city officials. The practise soon spread throughout the country. Some good, at least, came from such a horrible event. But the price the city was forced to pay for that good was too high &ndash 21 people dead, over 150 injured, and untold sums of money in damages and clean-up bills.
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The Ministry of History is not an academic source. Our pieces are written by writers who have been keen students of history for years and are well versed in, and influenced by, countless other writers and works. For this article specifically our sources have included:
&lsquoA Sticky Tragedy: the Boston Molasses Disaster&rsquo, article by Chuck Lyons, published by History Today (2009)
&lsquoThe Great Boston Molasses Flood&rsquo, article by Sarah Betancourt, published by The Guardian (2009)
The Boston Post
The Boston Post, Jan. 16, 1919
“Ensnaring in its sticky flood more than 100 men, women and children crushing buildings, teams, automobiles and street cars — everything in its path — the black reeking mass slapped against the side of buildings footing Copp’s Hill and then swished back toward the Harbor,” reads a portion of this article.
Without Warning, Molasses Surged Over Boston 100 Years Ago
When I was a boy in Boston and had reached a sufficiently sophisticated age, I was allowed to go downtown by myself. I was finally deemed capable of handling the ancient subway system and the narrow, clogged streets, and I responded by making ritualistic expeditions from the boring security of the Back Bay to the perilous excitements of Washington Street. This was my Gobi Desert, my Mountains of the Moon, my Tarzan Country.
My target was always Iver Johnson's, the famous old sporting-goods store that captured the hearts of Boston lads in those days. It faced on Washington Street near the edge of Scollay Square, that opening in the cow-path streets where stood the Old Howard, a burlesque theater famous for supplementing the curricula of Harvard students. "Always Something Doing, One to Eleven, at the Old Howard" read its ads in the Boston Globe, followed by the titillating phrase, "25 Beautiful Girls 25." Scollay Square was off limits to me, and no wonder.
But Iver Johnson's was a wholesome interest. There I could wander through aisles flanked by baseball bats through thickets of split-bamboo fly rods and stubbles of short, steel bait-casting rods (fiber-glass rods and spinning reels were as yet unknown) through an arsenal of rifles and shotguns, blue steel barrels glinting against the warm-grained walnut stocks and through a long array of heavy woolen winter clothes and thick leather hunting boots. Boys were under constant surveillance by supercilious clerks. I remember how surprised one of them was the day I actually bought something, but no matter. This was a place in which to build dreams.
Iver Johnson's displayed some of its own items in the window that overlooked Washington Street. Sleds shiny with varnish. Also, as I remember, a little .22 revolver. And bicycles. My two older brothers had both been given Iver Johnson bikes, and one of these fine old 28-inch wheelers was reposing in our basement, heavy with dust. It was supposed to be handed down to me, but there was now too much traffic in the Back Bay, even on Sunday mornings, for a kid to learn how to handle a big bike. I went without—and so learned to hate many aspects of modernity.
The way to reach Iver Johnson's was to take the subway to Park Street and walk northeast to a wonderful little byway called Cornhill, which pitched downward to Washington Street. You could smell Cornhill before you reached it because at its upper end was the Phoenix, a coffee-house marked by the aroma of freshly ground beans. The rich scent filled the streets around and lured customers by the score.
Along with the coffee smell was another, equally pervading. One could discern throughout much of downtown Boston, and especially around the North End, the unmistakable aroma of molasses.
As a boy, I never questioned that odor, so strong on hot days, so far-reaching when the wind came out of the east. It was simply part of Boston, along with the swan boats in the Public Garden and the tough kids swimming in the Frog Pond on the common. But years later, when I was on the staff of the Boston Globe, I asked a colleague about it. We were walking over toward the North End, beyond Hanover Street, and our taste buds were guiding us toward one of the corner trattorias where North End Italians make, I swear, the world's finest pizza, and for once I was annoyed by that other smell—the Boston smell.
"Why does Boston smell of molasses?" I asked my friend.
He looked at me curiously. "Because of the molasses flood, of course," he said.
"Yeah. The thing we do special stories on every ten years. Haven't you worked on one yet?"
I admitted I had not. And then the little restaurant came into view and we entered and sat down to pizza and kitchen tumblers of cellar-made Italian wine. And I forgot molasses for a number of years.
My old paper did short memory pieces about the Great Boston Molasses Flood on ten-year anniversaries of the event, which occurred in 1919. I didn't happen to work there in a year that had a nine at the end of it, and so remained largely ignorant about the original disaster. Older friends and relatives recalled it, but not very accurately, or in much detail. To learn more, I recently dug into the files of the Globe and pieced together fragile bits of brown newsprint as best I could.
Part of the front page of the Boston Daily Globe on January 16, 1919, the day after the Great Molasses Flood. (Boston Daily Globe, in the Boston Public Library, CC BY 2.0)
Copp's Hill. It rises beside the conflux of the Charles River and Boston's inner harbor. It looks across at the yardarms of the U.S.S. Constitution—"Old Ironsides"—moored at the Boston Naval Shipyard over at Charlestown. A full-size American car trying to negotiate the side streets of Copp's Hill will probably bark its whitewalls on both curbs. At the foot of the hill, at Salem Street, is the Old North Church where two lanterns were hung as a signal to Paul Revere, and in a little park next to the church is a statue of Revere himself. Old men sit by the statue on sunny days, playing checkers and arguing dramatically in Italian. Copp's Hill is right there in the North End, Boston's Little Italy.
Commercial Street. It loops around the salient of Copp's Hill from the Charlestown Bridge, east and south, to link with Atlantic Avenue. It roars with traffic—and it did so in 1919, but with different sounds. Instead of the thunder of today's diesels, there was the unmuffled blat of loaded lorries with solid rubber tires, the endless clop of work horses pulling freight wagons and, over all, the roar of the relatively new elevated railway—the "El"—that for years kept Commercial Street in shadow.
On the water side of Commercial Street, opposite Copp's Hill, there stood in 1919 a giant storage tank. It had been built four years before by the Purity Distilling Company—massively constructed, with great curved steel sides and strong bottom plates set into a concrete base and pinned together with a stitching of rivets. It was built to hold molasses, that old Colonial commodity that stirs school-day memories of the "triangle trade": slaves from Africa to the West Indies molasses from the West Indies to New England rum, made from the molasses, back across the Atlantic for a cargo of slaves. The old triangle had long been broken by 1919, but New England still made (and makes) rum, as well as baked beans, and the molasses for both still came (and comes) north from the Caribbean and New Orleans. In 1919, Boston's Purity tank could hold about two and a half million gallons of the stuff.
January 15, 1919. The weather had been mild for Boston—close to 40 degrees Fahrenheit—and the streets were bare of snow.
Two months before, the Great War (to end all wars) had ended, and the Yankee Division, the 26th, was coming home soon. That bloody adventure was over, and the nation was about to enter a great experiment—Prohibition. One more state was needed to ratify the 18th Amendment, and a vote was scheduled the next day. With an eye perhaps to the future, Purity Distilling Company had sold out in 1917 to United States Industrial Alcohol. Thus that huge molasses tank, 50 feet tall and some 90 feet in diameter, could legally continue to supply alcohol to industry.
The big Boston tank was just about full. A ship from Puerto Rico had brought its contents up to about 2,300,000 gallons a few days before.
At noon on this January day, work around the molasses tank routinely slowed as laborers took time out for their sandwiches and coffee. Men paused to eat and chat in a shack owned by the Paving Department, whcih shared the open area where the tank stood. Others were doing the same at the quarters of a Boston Fire Department fireboat on the waterfront side of the tank.
They were most probably discussing baseball—Boston had won the World Series in 1918—and a new film called Shoulder Arms which was Charlie Chaplin's satire on life in the trenches. They probably mentioned politics, for President Wilson was in Europe trying to get a peace treaty based on his Fourteen Points. Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt had died only two weeks before, and like him or not, you had to admire the man, even if you were a Boston day laborer.
They would certainly have been hashing over Boston's own politics, ever a fascinating subject. Ex-Mayor John J. Fitzgerald was by now out of the picture and these workmen probably said, "More's the pity," for "Honey Fitz" never lost sight of his Irishness and seemed a darlin' man to the workers, despite all the stories of graft. One of his grandsons—the one named for him: John Fitzgerald Kennedy—would be two years old in May. Fitzgerald himself had been born in the North End back when it was Irish and not yet Italian.
And certainly the flu epidemic would have been on the tongues of these workers. It took some 20 million lives around the world, more than half a million in the United States. There was nothing a man could do about it, it seemed, except go regularly to church and burn a few candles. But these men needn't have worried about the flu that day, for their own particular disaster was on the way.
At about 12:30, with a sound described as a sort of muffled roar, the giant molasses tank came apart. It seemed to rise and then split, the rivets popping in a way that reminded many ex-soldiers of machine-gun fire. And then a wet, brown hell broke loose, flooding downtown Boston.
Spill a jar of kitchen molasses. Then imagine an estimated 14,000 tons of the thick, sticky fluid running wild. It left the ruptured tank in a choking brown wave, 15 feet high, wiping out everything that stood in its way. One steel section of the tank was hurled across Commercial Street, neatly knocking out one of the uprights supporting the El. An approaching train screeched to a stop just as the track ahead sagged into the onrushing molasses.
When the molasses wave hit houses, they "seemed to cringe up as though they were made of pasteboard," wrote one reporter. The Clougherty home at the foot of Copp's Hill collapsed around poor Bridget Clougherty, killing her instantly. And when pieces of the tank hit a structure, they had the effect of shellfire. One jagged chunk smashed the freight house where some of the lunchers had been working.
The great brown wave caught and killed most of the nearby laborers. The fireboat company quarters was splintered. A lorry was blasted right through a wooden fence, and a wagon driver was found later, dead and frozen in his last attitude like a figure from the ashes of Pompeii.
On January 20, 1919, a welder cuts the molasses tank to search for the bodies of those who lost their lives in the explosion and ensuing flood. (The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
How fast is molasses in January? That day the wave moved at an estimated 35 miles per hour. It caught young children on their way home from the morning session of school. One of them, Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn't answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his sisters staring at him. (Another sister had been killed.) They had found little Anthony stretched under a sheet on the "dead" side of a body-littered floor.
The death toll kept rising, day after day. Two bodies showed up four days after the tank burst. They were so battered and glazed over by the molasses that identification was difficult. The final count was 21 dead, 150 injured, a number of horses killed. The molasses wave, after spreading out, covered several blocks of downtown Boston to a depth of two or three feet. Although rescue equipment was quick to arrive on the scene, vehicles and rescue workers on foot could barely get through the clinging muck that filled the streets.
A news reporter later remembered seeing Red Cross volunteers, Boston debutantes in smart gray uniforms with spotless white shirtwaists and shiny black puttees, step determinedly into the deep brown muck. In a second they were gooey and bedraggled, plunging through the flood that sucked at their puttees.
Apparently one reason the ambulances arrived so soon was that a policeman was at his corner signal box, making a call to his precinct, when he glanced down the street and saw the brown tide slithering toward him. You can hear in your mind his gasp into the phone: "Holy Mother iv God! Sind iverythin' you can—somethin' tirrible has happened!"
Most of the facts about the Great Molasses Flood emerged in the findings of the lawsuits that swamped Boston after the event and were just as sticky as the molasses. Litigation took six years, involved some 3,000 witnesses and so many lawyers that the courtroom couldn't hold them all.
The reason for the lawsuits was disagreement as to the nature of the disaster. What in the world had caused it? Three explanations arose: there had been an explosion inside the tank (in which case the fermentation of the molasses would be to blame) there had been a bomb set off (not so wild a possibility in those early days of Bolshevism—bombs had already blasted a few American industrial plants) there had been a structural failure of the four-year-old tank (which made United States Industrial Alcohol liable).
Eventually the court found that the tank had ruptured simply because the "factor of safety" was too low. In other words, inspections hadn't been tough enough. The company was held to blame for the horror. Settlements of more than 100 claims were made out of court. Industrial Alcohol paid off between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Survivors of those killed reportedly got about $7,000 per victim.
Molasses is the main byproduct of the manufacture of sugar from sugar cane. It results from the continued boiling of cane juice—reminiscent of the boiling off of maple sap to produce maple syrup. When enough reboiling has gone on to wrench every bit of sugar out of the molasses, the resulting viscous liquid is blackstrap, the extra-thick molasses used as an additive in cattle feed. It provides valuable carbohydrates in the diet of a cow.
Back in 1919 you couldn't have given the product away in Boston. The gluey chaos caused by the flood was cleaned up by hosing the area with salt water from fireboats and then covering the streets with sand. The trouble was that all the rescue workers, clean-up crews and sight-seers, squelching through the molasses, managed to distribute it all over Greater Boston. Boots and clothing carried it into the suburbs. Molasses coated streetcar seats and public telephones. Everything a Bostonian touched was sticky. There is a report that molasses even got as far as Worcester. Certainly the inner harbor turned brown as the hoses washed the goo into the bay.
As the rescue workers and clean-up crews tackled the incredible mess the night of January 16, they paused in puzzlement at the sudden ringing of church bells all over downtown Boston. Nebraska had voted on the 18th Amendment and ratified it. Prohibition was law, and churches which had campaigned for it in their pulpits now celebrated. Men up to their ankles in the makings of rum listened for a moment and went back to work.
The smell of molasses remained for decades a distinctive, unmistakable atmosphere of Boston. My boyhood association of the sweet aroma, mingled with the fragrance of coffee from the Phoenix, led me into a habit I still enjoy, though most other people seem to shun it: I invariably sweeten my first cup of early morning coffee with a teaspoonful of dark molasses. To me, the two go together.
But the Phoenix coffeehouse did not prove as permanent as the morning ritual it inspired. It was sacrificed to the great rebuilding of the inner city which took place mostly in the 1960s, and, unlike its namesake, it has not risen again. Even Cornhill has gone. Even the Old Howard. Even Iver Johnson's. And finally, even the smell of molasses. I passed the site of the catastrophe recently and found that there is little to show for it. Copp's Hill is the same as ever, but the El is gone, and the old waterfront, once so messy with decrepit warehouses, has been largely redesigned and landscaped. Where the great doomed tank once stood, there is a park filled with swings, slides and the shouts of children, and next to it, an enclosed recreation center.
A retrospective account of the flood indicated that the "high molasses mark" could still be seen on walls and buildings in the area. I looked and saw a dark stain—but it was just a city stain with nothing to indicate that the gush of molasses had lapped that high and painted the stone brown. I couldn't even find a plaque, not the merest marker to remember the 15th of January, 1919. I sniffed at the dark stain. Nothing.
But as I get older, early impressions express themselves suddenly and in strange ways. And as everyone knows, nothing is more nostalgic than a smell or a taste. One morning, not long before I started looking into the story of the flood, I was drinking my early coffee, hot and delicious, with just that faint touch of molasses to give it special meaning. And inexplicably I said, "I wish I had a bicycle."
The Great Molasses Flood in Boston 1919
More than a century ago, Boston experienced a man-made disaster like no other. Bostonians heard rumbles and crashes in the distance, not unlike the sound of a bursting dam. Boston residents had no idea that more than 100 people would perish from an oncoming tsunami.
With a deafening bang, 2.3 million gallons of sticky, viscous molasses would come pouring into the streets. The tsunami reached heights of over 25 feet while traveling at a surprising 35 miles per hour. Everybody on the streets and in their homes found themselves suddenly waist-deep in the sticky substance. This incident would come to be known as the Boston Toffee Apple Tsunami.
The molasses began tearing down structures, sending trains careening off of their rails. Buildings were torn apart at their foundations while dozens of vehicles flowed effortlessly across the Boston streets. In the end, roughly 150 people fell victim to the tsunami with hundreds injured or missing. Most of those that lost their lives in the molasses flood were workers stationed nearby the exploding tank.
Thanks to the cool January air, the molasses became even sticker and viscous than usual. This rendered people and animals immobile and unable to call for help. With the flood glowing taller by the minute, children as young as ten became trapped and suffocated before help could arrive.
The exploding tank was a result of shoddy construction and insufficient testing. The Purity Distilling Company had prepared several full tanks of fermenting molasses in order to get more of its rum onto shelves before Prohibition came into effect.
As the molasses fermented, a buildup of carbon dioxide was pushing against the inner walls of the tanks. The tank was also known for leaking, and consumers in the area would often fill jugs of spilled molasses for personal consumption. When people raised concerns about the leaks, the Purity Distilling Company simply painted the tanks the same color as molasses in order to mask the cracks without investing in a new tank. Three days before disaster struck, the company had refilled the tanks to max capacity, further straining the walls and contributing to excess pressure buildup.
In an attempt to avoid responsibility for failed testing, poor construction, and irresponsible business practices, the Purity Distilling Company pointed the finger of blame at terrorists. This did not convince anyone, and the company had to pay $600,000 in settlements. The company’s negligence forced Massachusetts lawmakers to ensure engineers inspect and test all big construction plans in the future.
Cleanup of the molasses spill took weeks to complete. Cool temperatures made it increasingly more challenging to remove from roads and buildings. And as temperatures increased, the molasses released a nose-wrinkling stench mixed with both building parts and the smell of death.
Rescue and Recovery
The molasses was waist deep in the streets, and covered struggling forms trying to escape the sticky mass. People couldn’t tell the difference between men, women, children or horses. The more they struggled, the more the molasses ensnared them.
Over a hundred cadets from the training ship USS Nantucket, docked nearby, ran to the scene to rescue victims and keep onlookers away from danger. Then the Boston police, US Army soldiers and Red Cross personnel arrived and tried to make their way through the syrup to help those caught in it. Doctors and nurses set up a makeshift hospital in a nearby building. Rescuers spent the next four days searching for victims. Finally, they gave up.
Months later, casualties of the molasses disaster washed up from Boston Harbor.
Hundreds of people helped the cleanup effort, and they tracked molasses all over the city. For months it seemed that anything a Bostonian touched was sticky: pay phones, T seats, sidewalks and subway platforms. The molasses even made its way into private homes, and some said it got tracked as far as Worcester. The harbor didn’t lose its brown tinge until summer.
Section of tank after molasses disaster explosion. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.
The Great Molasses Flood of 1919
Not being a native to Boston I am always on the look out for some interesting tidbit or event that will give me an unsderstanding as to why things are the way they are here.
The Great Molasses Flood and the Great Boston Molasses Tragedy, occurred on January 15, 1919, in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. A large molasses storage tank burst, and a wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph (56 km/h), killing 21 and injuring 150. The event has entered local folklore, and residents claim that on hot summer days, the area still smells of molasses.
With a diameter of 90 feet and 50 feet high, the iron tank could hold about 2½ million gallons of molasses, ready to be distilled into rum or industrial alcohol.
Whatever caused the explosion, the tank gave out a dull roar, and then its two sides flew outward with a mighty blast. One huge piece knocked out the support of an elevated railway, buckling the tracks. An engineer stopped his train just in time to avoid an even worse disaster. Fragments of metal landed 200 feet away.
Besides sending shrapnel whizzing through the air, the explosion flattened people, horses and buildings with a huge shockwave. As some tried to get to their feet, the sudden vacuum where the tank once was created a reverse shockwave, sucking air in and knocking people, animals and vehicles around once more, and shaking homes off their foundations.
That was just the first few seconds. The real terror was about to begin.
The tank had been filled to near capacity, and 2.3 million gallons of thick, heavy, odorous molasses formed a sticky tsunami that started at 25 or 30 feet high and coursed through the streets at 35 mph. Victims couldn't outrun it. It knocked them into buildings and other obstacles, it swept them off their feet, and it pulled them under to drown in a viscous, suffocating, brown death.
Approximately 150 were injured 21 people and several horses were killed — some were crushed and drowned by the molasses. The wounded included people, horses, and dogs coughing fits became one of the most common ailments after the initial blast.
While I find this interesting what is more important is that is where I get my pastries Mike's Bake Shop and some chow.
Boston's 1919 molasses-tank explosion turned this elevated train structure into a twisted mass of metal.
Death by Molasses
T here are many terrible ways to die. Being boiled alive or drowning in thick, molasses is somewhere at the top of that list. Luckily for most of us, this fate is something that could only happen in our nightmares. This wasn’t the case for twenty-one people on January 15, 1919, in Boston.
Purity Distilling was a local Boston institution. The plant made and stored molasses, which was then enjoyed by many Americans. While we know it primarily as a sweetener, in 1919 molasses was used to make alcohol.
Then congress passed the prohibition.
Manufacturers raced to make as much alcohol as they could before the restrictions came into effect. Purity Distilling as well since the the factories could still legally produce the liqueur were using their premium product more quickly. This meant that their containers were filled more often, and to higher levels that they’d before been unused to.
There were plenty of red flags the company ignored. These flags were so crimson and egregious that it’s hard to imagine them being ignored today. Yet to those who study industrial disasters the song is very familiar. The need for speed and greed overcame any calls to slow down and focus on safety.
The dam, or in this case tank, broke on January 15, 1919. According to witnesses, there was a crash like thunder and then those within the splash zone saw a giant forty-foot wave of molasses. Its destructive powers from both heat and speed broke houses, railway lines, and people. It annihilated those close, while causing serious injuries as it swept through the town.
Before long, several blocks were covered in a sticky thick tar-like substance. Because it was winter, the molasses thickened, making breaking free from its viscous hold difficult. The railway it hit looked like it had been put through a washing machine and was rendered unusable for months afterward. Several residents were trapped in collapsed buildings and cried out for help.
The yard workers who were closer to the tanks when they exploded died relatively quickly. Everyone else suffered in the disastrous fallout. One man is recorded to have actually suffocated because he could not escape from his pinned position as the molasses rose. Others suffered broken bones, concussions, and serious injuries. The burns from initial contact peeled away the skin, leaving it open to infections, since these people couldn’t get help fast enough.
When they managed to remove enough molasses, welders began to cut through the metal from the tanks to free those trapped underneath… or to free the bodies so families could have some peace.
In the end, twenty-one people died, and 150 people were injured. Though it is said that no one of importance was harmed since the area was primarily the workplace and home to immigrants.
What about the company whose irresponsible behavior led to this disaster? At first, Purity Distilling claimed that they were blameless. Instead, they insisted it was, in fact, an enemy with a bomb who had caused the explosion and the resulting disaster. Six years passed with witnesses, experts in floods, and experts in explosive materials, all testifying. Justice was eventually served and the courts forced the company to pay out a substantial sum.
Perhaps more important than the money was the resulting legislation. As is the case for many of the stringent laws in the country, disasters like this paved the way for common sense rulings. Now, companies couldn’t hire just anyone to build their industrial equipment. They needed trained engineers with certifications. This increased safety drastically.
There is no doubt, though tragic, that the Molasses Flood helped save future lives. Though the tragedy left its mark on the city, the laws it inspired remained long after the syrupy smell left Boston.
The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 Killed Dozens and Left a Devastating Toll on Boston
Section of tank after Great Molasses Flood explosion around 1:00 pm. Leslie Jones Collection/Boston Public Library/New England.
At first, the company did nothing to stop the leaks from the tank. However, this also meant that they were gaining more enemies around the area then friends. So, in order to make people happy, the company decided they would fix the problem. But instead of bringing in someone to make sure the tank was safe and sound, the company decided to paint the tank brown which would hide the leaks better. They also chose to re-caulk around the tank. Unfortunately, for the people on Commercial Street, this would not fix the problem.
The Day of Boston&rsquos Great Molasses Flood
Between the hour of noon and 1:00 pm, kids were played on Commercial Street while others went for a walk or to run errands. The fire department, located right next to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, was filled with firefighters who were playing cards while eating lunch. For everyone on and around Commercial Street in Boston, it was like a regular day. That was until people heard what they thought sounded like a gunshot and within seconds, without even knowing what was happening, their world would change.
The bang that the residents thought was a gunshot was really the explosion of molasses from the tank. The 25-foot high and 100 yards wide tidal wave of molasses started to head down Commercial Street at 35 miles per hour. Those in its path had no chance of escaping. The rushing tidal wave of molasses swallowed many people up, which caused them to suffocate. As the flood of molasses started tearing down the street, it demolished everything in its path, including the fire department, houses, and a large section of elevated tracks in the area.
Rescue workers and volunteers struggled to pull victims from the mess. Globe File Photo/Boston Globe.
While police officers, other first responders, and 100 USS Nantucket sailors from the navy were quick to respond, rescue efforts were slow. The molasses was not only waist deep, but because the temperature was only 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the molasses started to thicken. These conditions made it harder for rescue personnel to reach the residents that needed their help. In order to break up the molasses, the firemen had to use salt water. From there, they were able to use the water from their hoses to send the molasses to the gutters.
In total, clean up took about six months and an estimated 80,000 hours. The last body from the molasses flood was found four months after the tragedy. This man was riding down the street when he was swept up by the molasses and thrown into the river. The molasses flood had only reached a half mile, but the property damage totaled around $100 million in today&rsquos currency. In the end, there were 21 lives lost and about 150 people injured.