Bizarre History: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Boston Molasses I’ve always wondered why some incredible events make it into the history books, while others are almost forgotten. Who determines which events are worthy of school child dioramas and which are not? We learned all about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the unfortunate members of the Donner Party. But what about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919?

What? You’ve never heard of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919? Well, me either, at least not until I stumbled upon it last week…and that’s my point exactly! Friends, kick back and prepare to listen to one of the most exciting chapters of American history to have ever been forgotten!

A Sticky Situation

Boston Molasses FloodThe date was January 15, 1919. The place was the North End of Boston, Massachusetts, one of the most intensely populated areas of the world at that time…it was actually on a par with Calcutta, India. It was an unseasonably warm day for January, a comfortable forty-one degrees. So, people came out of their winter hibernation in order to enjoy the day, and soon the streets were crowded with fun-seekers.

Purity Distilling CompanyMeanwhile, in the same part of town, the employees of the Purity Distilling Company were hard at work. The company was in the business of fermenting molasses to turn into rum and industrial alcohol. They had a storage tank of molasses that measured 50 feet tall, and 90 feet in diameter, and was capable of holding 2,300,000 gallons of molasses! As fate would have it, the tank had recently been filled, when disaster struck.

We often hear tornado survivors say, “It sounded like a freight train!” People near the plant reported hearing a sound like gunfire as the rivets popped off and the sides of the storage tank split open. And then, a “dull, muffled roar” as the rushing torrent of molasses flowed down the bustling city street.

Who Said Molasses Was Slow?

Boston Daily Globe - Molasses Tank ExplosionWhoever says that something is as “slow as molasses” has obviously never tried to ride a 15-foot wave of molasses traveling at speeds exceeding 35 miles per hour! Twenty-six million pounds of molasses tore down Boston’s Commercial Street. I just got a little sidetracked and I will tell you that, using Paula Deen’s recipe for gingerbread men, you should be able to make approximately 4,992,000,000 cookies with that amount of molasses! I’m pretty sure my calculations are correct, because, while I’m horrible at math, I excel at cookies.

Boston MolassesYes, this sounds like something from a Japanese horror movie or a Saturday morning cartoon, but it was serious stuff. The molasses moved with enough force to rip entire buildings from their foundations! It smashed houses, overturned wagons and broke the girders that had been supporting an elevated train track. The train collapse created a wave of molasses that measured 25 feet high. In today’s money, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities’ website estimates that property damage was approximately $100 million!

In the Sweet By and By

Boston Naturally, property wasn’t the only thing damaged. Several blocks were flooded with molasses measuring two to three feet deep. As a child, you’re always warned about the horrors of quicksand, but no one warns you about molasses, which is evidently a much larger threat than quicksand for urban dwellers. Twenty-one people were killed. More than 150 people were injured. Many horses, cats and dogs also lost their lives.

People and horses were tossed through the air or stuck down like bugs on flypaper. Some were injured from flying debris. Some survivors reported having been unable to call for help, due to the molasses that clogged their throats. Many people drowned. It took four days to locate all of the victims. The Boston Police, the Red Cross, an Army battalion, and hundreds of Navy personnel worked the search and rescue effort.

Boston Molasses FactoryIf you’ve ever tried to clean a honey or pancake syrup spill, you can imagine the horror involved in this cleanup. After trying several methods, cleanup crews discovered that salt water could cut the molasses and wash it into the gutters. It took two weeks and an estimated 80,000 man-hours to rid the streets of molasses.

Making the Charges Stick

Of course, no one wanted to assume responsibility for the stickiest flood in history. The United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which was the parent company of the Purity Distilling Company, was quick to blame anarchists. Ooh, those pesky anarchists! The company practically painted a picture of sinister men, twirling their handlebar mustaches and plotting the demise of the company. They claimed that the sinister anarchists had detonated a bomb.

Boston MolassesInvestigators discovered, however, that the tank had been both hastily and shoddily built. The man in charge of the construction of the tank was not even an engineer or an architect. In fact, no engineer or architect was ever consulted on the project. It’s really quite remarkable that the massive tank had lasted almost four years, although nearby residents had always complained that the tank leaked. Using good ol’ fashioned American business ingenuity, the company had solved that little problem. Oh, no, they hadn’t fixed the leak; they had painted the tank the color of molasses, so the leak wouldn’t be noticeable! Remember, this was prior to the invention of duct tape!

The company soon found itself on the defensive side of 125 lawsuits. Ultimately, the company paid $600,000.00 in out of court settlements. Survivors of those who lost their lives received approximately $7,000.00 per victim.

Sweet Talk

Boston Molasses Flood LandmarkToday, the site where the molasses tank once stood is a recreational complex next to Puopolo Park. At the entrance of the park, there is a plaque that commemorates the disaster. It remains a little recognized and rarely mentioned piece of Boston’s history, though some people swear that, on a hot day, the streets still smell of molasses! I, for one, hope this story inspires school children to start churning out sticky dioramas to wow their Social Studies classes!
Here’s a wonderful video about the event, with excellent documentary photos. You’ll enjoy it!

Happy Trails, Y’all!
Anita Lequoia

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