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The Molasses Disaster of 1919

Updated on December 29, 2017
Anita Hasch profile image

About the Author Anita's main passion in life is reading and writing. She has a interest in many different subjects, especially history.

Molasses dates back to 1493 when Columbus introduced it to the West Indies. A major disaster in the history of the United States happened in January 1919 when a large molasses storage tank on Boston’s waterfront practically exploded.


The Molasses Wave Destroyed Everything

The molasses came surging down the city’s north end, destroying everything in its way. It was so forceful that it smashed down houses, buildings and even snapped the support girders from a train track. It killed 21 people and injured 150 and caused countless damages.

The tank was 50 ft high and 90 ft wide and had only been manufactured about three years previously. Molasses being very popular at the time was used in cooking and fermentation to make rum. Purity Distilling Company’s storage tank was filled to capacity with molasses awaiting transfer to the company’s distillery in Cambridge.

After the molasses flood

Dark Tide

The Great Boston Molasses flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

Imagine a wave of molasses sweeping through a town at 35 mph and destroying everything that it encountered. It led to one of the largest legal battle in American History. I just could not put this book down. A must have for all history lovers.

Medics and Police Officers Arrived Soon

The five floors high storage tank was set into a concrete base. It was situated close to the harbor, and ships that brought molasses from Cuba could easily move the molasses to the storage tank using the railroad tracks close by.

The sticky nature of molasses made the rescue attempts more difficult. Medics and police officers who arrived on the scene soon after the tragedy had to struggle through waist deep sticky muck to reach the victims.

Rescue in Progress

After the victims were removed the cleanup crews could not get rid of the two million gallons of molasses that were everywhere. Eventually they discovered that saltwater would cut the hardened molasses and would enable them to hose it down the streets into the gutters.

Cleaning up

Explosion of Storage Tank Blamed on Anarchists

After the war ‘The United States Industrial Alcohol Co.’ had to find other markets for its molasses. It found a solution in the possibility of prohibition, which was to ban all sales of alcohol in the United States after a one year grace period. They intended to cash in on pre-prohibition demand.

The United States Industrial Alcohol Co. blamed anarchists for sabotaging the tank by detonating a bomb. Another theory was that the molasses had fermented inside the tank, which led to an explosion.

Investigators soon discovered the cause of the explosion of the storage tanks. The tank walls were both too thin and made of steel that was too brittle to withstand the volume of molasses. The tank had been built in a hurry and had not been tested properly because a shipload of molasses was due only days after the completion of the tank in December 1915. The man in charge of the building project did not have the experience required for such a large project. No engineer was consulted and no plans were drawn up and passed by an architect.

The Massachusetts Superior Court named Colonel Hugh Ogden as the auditor who would hear the evidence and report back on the cause of the disaster.

Ogden found that the factor of safety in the tank’s construction and inspection had not been up to standard. USIA was liable for the damage and had to pay around $7,000 to the family of each victim. The case brought in new laws to Massachusetts and other states that required Engineers to supervise large construction projects and required plans to be passed.

Molasses has gained popularity with the start of the health food movement. Its health benefits are vast and have been used for hundreds of years.




© 2016 Anita Hasch

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    • Anita Hasch profile imageAUTHOR

      Anita Hasch 

      2 years ago from Port Elizabeth

      Thank you Shyron, yes can you imagine it? I use molasses regularly. I microwave a glass of milk then add a teaspoon of molasses, delicious.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      2 years ago from Texas

      Anita, this is an amazing hub, I had never heard of this disaster.

      My grandma, made molasses cookies often, they were so good.

      Blessings my friend

    • Anita Hasch profile imageAUTHOR

      Anita Hasch 

      2 years ago from Port Elizabeth

      Thanks for the comment aviannovice. America has some very interesting history and incidents. I can't imagine what it must have been like for those

      caught up in a flood of molasses.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Interesting piece. I had never heard of this until now.

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