Boston Massachusetts: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919
A Strange Tale
The North End of Boston, Massachusetts is today a busy cluster of neighborhoods specializing in restaurants of Italian cuisine. It is known for the Paul Revere house and the Old North Church of pre-Revolution fame. However, there was another historic occurrence to which the North End can lay claim - one of the most bizarre events in United States history. Even today, on a hot July afternoon, the locals claim that the sickly sweet smell of molasses still wafts up from the cracks in the streets - a legacy of the strange Great Molasses Flood of January, 1919.
Boston's North End
At that time, molasses was an important commodity. Not only was it used as a food stuff (in Boston, a main ingredient in the making of the famous Boston Baked Beans!), but it was also the base in the production of rum and ethyl alcohol, which was then used in the production of munitions. The Purity Distilling Company owned a huge cast iron tank that stored over two million gallons of crude molasses. The tank was 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, and was located at 529 Commercial Street in the North End.
That January, the weather had been bitter cold, with temperatures down to about zero for most of the month. But by the 15th, the weather had taken a surprising turn for the better, and hovered at a balmy 40 degrees. The huge molasses tank was known to leak rather badly, and with the turn in the weather, local residents brought jugs and helped themselves to the molasses, trickling from several substantial leaks. This little money-saving trick had been known to the community for some time, and no doubt many a pot of baked beans had been simmered in stolen molasses from the humongous vat.
North End, Early 1900s - Note the Cobblestone Streets
It was about 12:30 pm on that unseasonably warm January day, and many local workers were taking their lunch breaks outside in the pleasant sunshine. Other locals scurried about the busy neighborhood, attending to their business, as usual, completely unaware that they were about to experience a most peculiar and deadly event.
Survivors later reported that, just before the blast, a low menacing rumbling sound reverberated through the streets surrounding the molasses tank. Having no idea what this noise could be, no one knew to get themselves out of the path of danger. Even if they had know that the rivets of the great molasses tank were shooting off into the air, the collapse that followed came all too quickly, and caught all those in the vicinity completely by surprise.
The giant molasses tank ruptured, and large pieces of it flew out into the nieghborhood as if exploded by a bomb. Two million gallons of molasses were released in a great wave, some said as high as 15 feet, though it was probably closer to 8 or 10. Those in the near proximity were hit by flying debris, some were propelled along the wave of molasses as if on a surfboard, while others were simply swallowed up by the thick, sticky onslaught.
How Could This Have Happened?
(click on photos for larger versions)
The flow of molasses ripped buildings from their foundations, which crumbled like houses of cards into the oozing liquid, a nearby railroad bridge was twisted like a pretzel, its freight cars toppling like toys into the deadly dark tide. Some people reportedly tried to outrun the approaching wave, but were unable to move fast enough to avoid being caught up in its syrupy path, which was traveling at a rate of 30 mph. As the wave moved through the streets, vague molasses-coated shapes of horses and people could be seen, struggling in the flow. Twenty-two people were killed, and a further hundred and fifty were injured by the time the swell of molasses abated. The dead ranged in age from two children of 10 years to an elderly man of 76. (One has to wonder what was recorded as cause of death!) Many of the dead were so encased in the sticky substance, that they were unrecognizable until the bodies were able to be washed.
Rescue Effort and Clean-up
Docked in nearby Boston Harbor was the USS Nantucket, of the Mass. Nautical School, and over a hundred of these sailors were the first rescuers to arrive on the scene. They began to wade into the knee-high mass of the sticky substance to pull people out of the mess. Soon after, the Boston Police arrived, followed by the Red Cross. It must have been a bizarre scene for those first responders, who had to set up a makeshift hospital in an undamaged building to tend to all the injured.
Then came the job of clean-up. It took about 2 weeks for 300 workers, working almost continually, to clear the sludgy mass from the cobblestone streets, automobiles and nearby buildings. Much of the molasses ended up in Boston Harbor, where it made the water a dark brown until it finally washed away, the following summer. The tank was not rebuilt on the site, and presently there is a park and Little League baseball field in its place. A small plaque, commemorating the odd event, has been placed at one end of the park.
Headlines of the Boston Disaster (casualty figures inaccurate)
Law suits were filed against the company who owned the molasses tank, and it was charged that the tank had not been properly constructed, or adequately tested or maintained, which had lead to the explosion. It was thought that the sudden turn in temperatures had been a factor in the building of pressure within the tank that caused its rupture. Though the company tried to claim that the tank had been sabotaged by a local anarchist group, the litigants won the day, and the company was obliged to pay out about eleven million dollars (today's equivalent) to the families of the dead and injured and to those whose property had been damaged or destroyed.
If you are ever in the charming city of Boston, make some time to visit the historic North End, and if you are there on a hot summer's day, you may just notice a sweet, syrupy smell hanging in the air - the smell of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.
© Katharine L. Sparrow