In the history of industrial accidents, few events are as strange or as catastrophic as the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, also known as the Boston Molasses Disaster. On the afternoon of January 15, 1919, a large molasses storage tank burst in the North End neighborhood of Boston, releasing a sticky, sugary wave that wreaked havoc on everything in its path. The incident resulted in a human tragedy, with 21 people losing their lives and over 150 injured, making it one of the most devastating and unusual disasters in American history.
The disaster was characterized by an almost surreal quality that belies the immense destruction it caused. A 15-foot high wave of thick, dark molasses flooded the streets, moving at a speed of 35 miles per hour and carrying with it a destructive force that left the neighborhood in ruins. The flood caused extensive damage to buildings, infrastructure, and property, resulting in financial losses totaling millions in today’s dollars.
Prelude to the Molasses Flood
In the years leading up to the disaster, the large molasses tank, owned by the Purity Distilling Company, had become a familiar part of the Boston cityscape. Situated near the harbor, the 50-foot-tall, 90-foot-wide tank was used to store molasses, a key ingredient in the production of industrial alcohol, a component used in making munitions. The tank was routinely filled to capacity, holding approximately 2.3 million gallons of molasses.
Despite being an integral part of the city’s industrial sector, the molasses tank was plagued by problems from the beginning. There were numerous reports of the tank leaking molasses, with local residents often collecting the sugary liquid for their own use. Additionally, the construction and maintenance of the tank had been hurried and under-supervised. There had been a lack of proper safety inspections and oversight, with some alleging that the tank’s integrity had been compromised due to cost-cutting measures.
The Day of the Molasses Flood
On the afternoon of January 15, 1919, the conditions were unseasonably warm, accelerating the fermentation process of the molasses inside the tank. The combination of the heat and pressure from the fermenting molasses likely caused the structural integrity of the already weakened tank to give way, releasing a deadly torrent of molasses onto the streets of Boston.
Residents and workers in the North End neighborhood were caught off guard by the sudden deluge. Houses and buildings were ripped from their foundations, while people and animals alike were swept away or trapped in the sticky substance. The speed and force of the molasses wave were so great that it even caused a train to derail, further adding to the chaos and destruction.
Aftermath of the Disaster
The Boston Molasses Flood left a trail of devastation in its wake. Beyond the immediate human toll of 21 deaths and over 150 injuries, the flood caused extensive damage to Boston’s North End neighborhood. Buildings, homes, and infrastructure were severely damaged or destroyed. In the immediate aftermath, emergency workers struggled to navigate the sticky, debris-laden streets in a bid to rescue survivors and recover bodies.
Cleanup efforts took weeks, with crews using salt water and sand to remove the sticky residue from the streets and buildings. Financially, the damage amounted to about $100 million in today’s dollars, causing significant economic hardship for many residents and businesses.
In the years that followed, the disaster prompted changes in industrial safety regulations and building inspection laws, with the event serving as a harsh reminder of the potential consequences of lax oversight. The Great Boston Molasses Flood, while a tragic event in its own right, served as a catalyst for much-needed reform in industrial safety and responsibility.