The Great Molasses Flood
On January 15, 1919, 95 years ago, there was a disastrous flood in Boston. But it was not a flood of water, it was a flood of molasses. Can you even imagine gallons of molasses coursing through the streets of the North End at 35 miles per hour? In some cases the wave of molasses was as high as 2 or 3 feet. 21 people were killed, 150 injured, and there was much property damage.
So where did all this molasses come from? By the harbor, on the edge of the North End there was a 50’ tall tank nearly filled with 26 million pounds of molasses. Today it’s hard for us to appreciate the importance of molasses, but at that time, it was the major sweetener , some was distilled for the making of rum, but the largest amount was used in the making of dynamite, other munitions, and explosives. This latter use had grown rapidly with the demands of the war that had just ended.
The tank had been built by USIA (U.S. Industrial Alcohol) on the waterfront at the edge of the North End neighborhood. It was located there because the North End was the home of Italian immigrants with little interest in politics and therefore little political power to offer resistance. Follow-up investigations found that many shortcuts had been taken in the construction of the tower so there was a general structural weakness. In addition, many basic safety tests were never conducted. On January 15th, the day in question, the temperature in Boston quickly went from 2 degrees to 40 degrees, and the pressure inside the tank caused a major collapse with pieces of debris flying through the air.
The force of the flood of molasses, coupled with the flying debris, knocked buildings from their foundation. The sticky substance knocked down people , and some died where they fell. It was difficult to treat any victims who survived the flood because they were covered with molasses. 300 worked on clean-up for more than 2 weeks, and the harbor was brown until summer.
In the days that followed, the owners kept insisting that the collapse was due to TNT used by anarchists, but in the trial, USIA was charged with manslaughter through negligence. There is a local myth that on a warm day, you can still smell molasses on the streets of that area!
© Dorothy C. Judd
This post is not intended as a scholarly article, but rather as a collection of facts gathered from Stephen Puleo’s book “Dark Tide,” as well as from, yes, Wikipedia.
Next post: Monday, January 20th