On 15 January 1919, in Boston’s North End, a viscous tide of molasses flooded the streets, throwing people and horses about, smashing buildings, and even damaging the steel supports of an elevated railway.
Rescuers had to wade through knee-deep molasses and sticky debris to reach survivors. Twenty-one people died in the disaster, including a Boston firefighter who slowly drowned in the molasses, having been trapped in a nearby damaged firehouse. Another 150 were injured.
A class action lawsuit was filed, and $628,000 were eventually awarded to the victims, a large sum at a time when it was unusual for such cases to be successful. The tank’s owner claimed an anarchist had blown it up, which the court rejected. The cause of the disaster was determined to be faulty construction and poor maintenance.
Molasses is used in the manufacture of rum. To comply with forthcoming Prohibition laws, plans were being made by the Purity Distilling Company to convert their East Cambridge plant from the production of rum to industrial alcohol. A final batch of molasses for rum production had arrived in November 1918. The tank had been hastily constructed three years earlier, and proper design standards were not followed (in particular, rivet strength was not checked).
At about 12:30 pm on 15 January, a tank containing 2,300,000 US gallons of fermenting molasses fell apart. Witnesses variously reported feeling the ground shake and hearing a long rumble similar to the passing of an elevated train, a deep growling or thunderclap and, as the rivets shot out of the tank, a sound like a machine-gun.
The collapse unleashed a tsunami of molasses 25 feet high at its peak, moving at 35 miles per hour – enough force to damage the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway and to tip a railroad car off its tracks. Two wooden houses collapsed when their cellars flooded and the receding tide of molasses carried the buildings off their foundations. The “high water mark” of the molasses was gooily visible on stone walls and steps in the surrounding neighbourhood.
Cleaning the immediate area took more than 300 people several weeks. Clean-up crews used salt water from a fireboat to wash the molasses away and sand to try to absorb it. Boston harbour was eerily brown until the following summer. The rest of Greater Boston and its suburbs took much longer to clean, since workers and sight-seers had walked molasses through the streets, into the subway, onto trains and streetcars, and countless other places. The event became part of local folklore and for decades afterwards residents claimed that on hot summer days the area still smelled of molasses.
Two children’s books, Patrick and the Great Molasses Explosion by Marjorie Stover (1985) and Molasses Flood by Blair Lent (1992) recount the disaster through the eyes of their young Irish heroes exploring the treacly wonderland of Boston’s ravaged North End. A historical account is given in Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo (2003). And the incident gets a brief mention in Canadian author Ami McKay’s remarkable debut novel The Birth House (2006). But so far no film has been made about the incident, which would seem to be too good an opportunity to miss!