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The Molasses Disaster

Article #12 • Written by Alan Bellows

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On 15 January 1919 the ground near 529 Commercial Street in Boston, Massachusetts began to tremble. At the nearby Purity Distilling Company, a six-story-tall molasses tank grumbled like a massive stomach with indigestion. The tank's monumental cache of molasses was awaiting transfer to a processing plant, where it would be used in the production of sweetener, drinking-liquor, and alcohol-based munitions. Moments after the first distressed groan, a sound reminiscent of machine-gun fire echoed in the streets as the tank's rivets buckled in quick succession. The tank burst in a terrific explosion, throwing massive, ragged chunks of sheet-iron into the surrounding buildings. The Purity offices were flattened by the blast, and a nearby fire station was crushed by a flying section of iron.

Despite the force of the rupture, initial damage was limited to the tank's adjacent buildings. The two-and-a-half million gallon column of molasses, however, caused a considerable catastrophe as it spread itself out into the North End neighborhood.

Bystanders were swept up in the smothering goo--tossed and rolled through the thick sludge. The migrating wave of brown syrup pushed buildings off their foundations and overturned wagons, carts, horses, and motorcars. It broke the girders of an elevated rail track, and tossed a train from its tracks. Within minutes several blocks of Boston's streets were buried in struggling victims, rubble of ruined buildings, assorted wreckage, and 2-3 feet of sweet, tacky goo.

Rescue efforts began immediately, but most who ventured in became mired in the mess and soon required rescuing themselves. Terrified survivors were seen running away from the chaotic scene covered from head to toe in dark brown molasses. The USS Nantucket was anchored at the Playground Pier a few block away, and Lieutenant Commander H. J. Copeland sent over a hundred of his able-bodied sailors to lend assistance. Police officers, military personnel, and Red Cross nurses slogged through the knee-deep syrup all night long, searching for sticky victims.

In all, twenty-one lives were lost in the disaster--mostly due to crushing and asphyxiation– and 150 injuries were reported. It is said that a lawyer for Purity arrived on the scene within hours and tried to pin the disaster on anarchist saboteurs, but despite this continued insistence, the company ultimately paid out about $1 million in settlements--equivalent to about $11 million today. The nearby harbor remained brown through the rest of the winter and spring, and it took over six months to clean the structures, automobiles, and cobblestone streets of the sticky mess. By coincidence, the 18th amendment of the US Constitution was ratified the day after the catastrophe, paving the way to the Prohibition.

The molasses tank prior to the explosion
The molasses tank prior to the explosion

The exact cause of the explosion was never determined definitively, but it is generally attributed to high pressure and a defects in the tank construction. According to some reports, the Purity Distilling Company had neglected to pressure-test the vessel prior to filling it for the first time; so upon its first load of molasses, the outside of the tank was striped with molasses leaks. Rather than paying for repairs, Purity opted to paint the tank brown. On that fateful day in 1919, pressure increases due to fermentation of the molasses and unseasonably warm temperatures put too much strain on these fractures, causing an energetic rupture.

Although its been almost a century since the flood, they say that on a hot day the streets in some parts of Boston still bleed molasses.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 23 September 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

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Posted 24 September 2005 at 07:20 pm

That is one of the most bizarre and fascinating things that I have ever read.
Wow. I'm speechless!

Alan Bellows
Posted 25 September 2005 at 01:11 am

There was a book published which describes these events in detail... it's called Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo. I haven't read it myself, but it has some pretty good reviews on the Barnes and Noble and Amazon websites. Link

Josh Harding
Posted 26 September 2005 at 06:22 am

I can imagine the strays in Boston that weren't outright killed by the flood livin high for the next few weeks...except the cats which have no sweet receptors on their tongues.

Posted 14 July 2006 at 09:32 am

I remember seeing something on this on the History channel. I would to find a link to that video. Anyone have that perchance?

Posted 15 September 2006 at 12:01 pm

wow thats really interesting. what a way to die eh?

Dr. Evil
Posted 21 December 2006 at 05:41 pm

Sweet article...Very Damn interesting

Posted 24 February 2007 at 08:05 pm

I read the book. It was great. Kids would scrape up the molasses that leaked from the old tank to take home. Several were killed when it burst. A watchman for the company quit because he kept having dreams about it breaking shortly before it actually did! Good read.

Posted 25 February 2007 at 08:29 pm

Now WHERE exactly did the phrase "slow as molasses" come from?!?!?

Posted 01 March 2007 at 04:33 pm

kgy121 said: "Now WHERE exactly did the phrase "slow as molasses" come from?!?!?"

Obviously not from this incident, eh?

Posted 14 July 2008 at 12:23 pm

kgy121 said: "Now WHERE exactly did the phrase "slow as molasses" come from?!?!?"

Thats because its "slow as molasses in January" and it must be a reference to something about people being slower then molasses in January. Or maybe just a boreal saying thats getting filtered down... I don't know.

Posted 19 July 2008 at 07:48 pm

Enter your reply text here. Ok

What is their to comment on. It happened. Good story. Use it to 'flirt' while visiting the nusing home!

Posted 20 February 2011 at 08:39 am

It's not that molasses is not slow! They pumped in, through a 200 foot pipe, molasses from the ships which had just come up through the gulfstream Therefore, the molasses was still over 50 degrees...when it mixed with the 2 degree molasses in the tank, fermentation formed gas...I'm reading "Dark Tide". Wow. Good book!

Posted 29 November 2013 at 08:08 pm

I ran I to this while helping my sons project book report. It's interesting but a sad historical event.

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