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Boston Massachusetts: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Updated on July 18, 2018
Sparrowlet profile image

Katharine spent part of her childhood residing in the Boston area and loves the history of this beautiful city.

Boston's North End by jbcurio
Boston's North End by jbcurio | Source

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

Boston's North End, Early 20th Century
Boston's North End, Early 20th Century | Source

The Disaster

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 neighborhood 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.

The video sums up the tragedy well, based on the excellent book on this topic by Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.


How Could This Have Happened?

The Damage

Damage to the Fire House
Damage to the Fire House | Source

(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

The Red Cross Arrives on the Scene
The Red Cross Arrives on the Scene | Source

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)

Headlines (with inaccurate casualty figures) of the Boston Molasses Flood
Headlines (with inaccurate casualty figures) of the Boston Molasses Flood | Source

The Fall-Out

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.

View of the Flood's Aftermath

The Aftermath of the Great Molasses Flood
The Aftermath of the Great Molasses Flood | Source

A Fascinating Topic for Children

The great molasses flood of Boston is a fascinating story for children, and a great way to get them involved and interested in history. There are a few books that I have used with children, both my own and in a therapeutic setting, to teach about this amazing event. These include The Great Molasses Flood by Beth Wagner Brust, Molasses Flood by Blair Lent (also available on Amazon.com) and Patrick and the Great Molasses Explosion by Marjorie Stover. I'm always looking for ways to spark a child's interest in history, and this bizarre disaster usually does. Share it with them and perhaps you'll get the chance to visit Boston and see the area where this extraordinary tragedy took place.

If you do take your children to the charming city of Boston, be sure to look for the plaque that commemorates the molasses flood. And if you are there on a hot summer's day, you may just notice a sweet, syrupy odor hanging in the air - the residual smell of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.


Sources:

Book: Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo, 2004

Wikimedia

About.com: Urban Legends

© 2012 Katharine L Sparrow

Comments Appreciated!

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    • Sparrowlet profile imageAUTHOR

      Katharine L Sparrow 

      3 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Yes, colorfulone, isn't it so strange? It was a major disaster, but you can't help but find humor in it now. Such a bizarre event! Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 

      3 years ago from Minnesota

      I had not heard of this. It is unimaginable.

    • billd01603 profile image

      billd01603 

      5 years ago from Worcester

      Thanks Sparrowlet Good informative Hub about a strange but tragic event. I love the pictures. Voted up and interesting

    • Sparrowlet profile imageAUTHOR

      Katharine L Sparrow 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      jpcmc, you did well with that comment! I'm still wondering what the cause of death is on those 21 death certificates! And how about the obits?

      "19 year old man, cut down in his prime by that ever-present and deadly menace.... the molasses tsunami!"

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 

      6 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      WOW. Definitely different. Who knew molasses can go as fast as 30 mph. Plus the 8 - 10 foot wave of molasses can be really frightening. Sweet disaster...literally sweet.

      @ Headfullofsound

      I'm trying hard to keep myself from making an offensive comment myself. But darn, this is weird.

    • Sparrowlet profile imageAUTHOR

      Katharine L Sparrow 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Yes, Christopher, that saying is clearly not accurate!

    • Sparrowlet profile imageAUTHOR

      Katharine L Sparrow 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      As heartbreaking as this disaster must have been at the time, it's hard not to see the humor in it, Headfullofsound!

    • Christopher Price profile image

      Christopher Price 

      6 years ago from Vermont, USA

      Good Hub.

      Apparently, the old saw "As slow as molasses in January" was coined by someone who never tried to outrun a flood of the stuff!

      CP

    • profile image

      Headfullofsound 

      6 years ago

      What an embarrassing way to go - "Cause of Death: A Common Baking Ingredient". Sorry, I just couldn't help myself. Bad commenter!

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