Molasses

Many historical events scream odd, but this one takes the cake. On January 15, 1919, a large storage tank burst in the North End neighborhood of Boston. What was this tank filled with? Two point three million gallons, twelve thousand tons, of molasses.[1] A wave of molasses rushed through the streets of Boston at an estimated thirty-five miles per hour.[2]

This disaster occurred at the Purity Distilling Company, 529 Commercial Street near Keany Square. The temperature that day had risen above forty degrees Fahrenheit, or four degrees Celsius. The preceding few days had been so cold that the rapid rise in temperature happened so quickly that the storage container exploded.[3]

This happened at 12:30 pm. Witnesses said that they felt the ground shake and heard a very loud bang. The resulting tsunami-like wave of molasses caused significant damage. It killed twenty-one people and injured another one hundred and ninety five. At its peak, the wave was estimated to have reached twenty-five feet high, or eight meters. Several streets were covered with two to three feet of molasses.[4]

The Boston Post reported that, “Molasses, waist deep, covered the streets and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage… Here and there struggled a form – whether animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was… Horses died like so many flies on sticky paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings – men and women – suffered likewise.”[5] Those that got trapped in the molasses were difficult to save.

Salt water from a water boat had to be used to clean the streets in the aftermath of this disaster. The cleanup started immediately but took weeks, even though hundreds of volunteers worked throughout the day to clean the mess.[6] Legend says that you can still get a whiff of molasses on a hot summer’s day.


[1] Emily Sohn, “Why the Great Molasses Flood Was So Deadly,” The History Channel, A&E Television Networks, January 15, 2019.
[2] Edwards Park, “Without Warning, Molasses in January Surged Over Boston,” Smithsonian 14, no. 8 (November 1983): 213–230.
[3] Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004), 91-95.
[4] Ferris Jabr, “‘The Science of the Great Molasses Flood’,” Scientific American, July 17, 2013.
[5] Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, 98.
[6] “The Great Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919”, The Hour, United Press International, January 17, 1979.

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