THE GREAT MOLASSES FLOOD – By ELLIN CURLEY

I’m a history buff and I particularly enjoy learning about the odd, unusual occurrences that often don’t make it into the history textbooks.

For example, On January 15, 1919, a freakish but deadly accident occurred in Boston. A massive, 50-foot tall tank storing molasses which were used in the production of industrial alcohol, ruptured. It created a giant wave of molasses that engulfed everything and everyone in its path.

The molasses swamped one of Boston’s busiest neighborhoods, killing 21 and injuring 150 people. (NOTE: Each newspaper originally claimed a different number of people died or were hospitalized. It apparently took a while to get the numbers correct and finalized.)

Globe headline – the great molasses flood

The statistics of the flood are gruesome. 2.3 million gallons of molasses created a black tidal wave 25 feet high and 160 feet wide that traveled at 35 miles per hour. This generated enough power to crumble small structures, knock the firehouse off its foundation and rip away a supporting beam for the elevated train tracks.

Two city blocks were quickly under the glue, so to speak. People outside drowned and suffocated as did people trapped as their homes and basements quickly filled up with the unforgiving goo. Others were swept away with the sticky tide. It was more deadly than a similar amount of water would have been because it was thick and sticky and trapped many people who might have escaped from a flood of water.

Boston, MA – 1/16/1919: Smashed vehicles and debris sit in a puddle of molasses on Commercial Street on Jan. 16, 1919, the day after a giant tank in the North End collapsed, sending a wave of an estimated 2.3 million gallons of molasses through the streets of Boston. Twenty-one people died and 150 were injured. (Boston Globe Archive)

During the summer of 1918, residents began noticing leaks in the giant tank. Being a typical corporation with little governmental regulation, the company responded by painting the tanks brown instead of grey. That way, you could no longer see the molasses seeping through the cracks in the tank. It was a literal cover up!

Local historical marker from the event

The litigation that followed the disaster lasted six years. The 1925 verdict held the company responsible. It was ordered to pay to the victims’ families the equivalent of 9.2 million dollars in today’s money — or then, about $7000 per family .

One of the company’s defenses was a claim that the tank rupture was caused by an anarchist’s bomb.  But there was no bomb nor any anarchists.

Damage from the great molasses flood – Boston 1915

In 2015, a Civil Engineering Magazine published an article that concluded that the walls of the tanks had been too thin and that the builders at the time should have known this.

This story is reminiscent of the tragedy of the Titanic, which sank in 1912 because of faulty design and inferior materials, including rivets. The iceberg caused the rivets to burst, flooding a fatal number of chambers in the Titanic’s hull. Just before the 1919 molasses flood, people heard popping sounds as the rivets on the tank popped and the contents of the tank exploded onto the street.

I love quirky historical stories like this one. I hope you enjoyed it too!

11 thoughts on “THE GREAT MOLASSES FLOOD – By ELLIN CURLEY

    • I would have thought that something as unique and iconic as a molasses flood would have caught the eye of historians. It’s the kind of quirky story that brings history to life for me.

      Like

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