A Sticky Situation | The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919
It was certainly one of history’s most bizarre disasters. Back in 1919, residents of Boston’s North End neighborhood heard a loud roar. Moments later, a fast moving tidal wave of molasses rushed through the streets. While it sounds odd, the Great Molasses Flood was no laughing matter. This tragedy would ultimately kill 21 people, and injure 150 more.

How did it happen?

The Great Molasses Flood

On January 15, 1919, at around 12:30 PM, Boston residents near Keany Square heard a “thunderclap-like bang” and felt the ground shake. At the Purity Distilling Company, a giant molasses tank had burst, spilling some 2.3 million gallons of molasses into the streets.  

At its peak, a 25 foot wave of molasses tore through the North End neighborhood, travelling 35 mph. The force of the wave ripped buildings off their foundations, leaving a trail of damage and destruction. Many blocks were left flooded with 2 to 3 feet of the sticky substance.  

The Great Molasses Flood wasn’t just costly for buildings in the area, but for people near the scene as well. The molasses traveled so quickly and with so much force, that anyone in the vicinity of this rushing wall of goo didn’t stand much of a chance. In addition to taking 21 lives and injuring 150 people, horses, dogs, and other animals also fell victim to the flood.

Rescue Efforts

116 cadets from the Massachusetts Nautical School were the first people to arrive on the scene. They had been on a training ship docked at a nearby pier. Some of these cadets would work to keep onlookers out of the way, while the rest entered the knee-deep mess to pull out survivors.

Eventually, the Boston Police, Red Cross, Army and Navy would arrive. A crude hospital was set up close by, and rescuers worked well into the night. Four days would pass before the search for victims was officially called off.

Floods in general can be catastrophic, but the viscosity of molasses made it even more problematic than a typical water flood. To make things worse, a winter chill would eventually cool and thicken the molasses even more, trapping people and complicating rescue efforts.

Because the molasses had glazed over victims, properly identifying the dead proved especially difficult.

Cleaning Things Up

When all victims had been freed from the mess, the next step was to clean everything up. And it turned out, getting rid of over 2 million gallons of molasses is pretty difficult.

Firefighters were unable to clear the mess with the fresh water from their fire hoses, but they eventually realized that salt water seemed to break up the molasses easier. They then used sand to try to absorb it.

In all, cleanup around Keany Square would take weeks, and the nearby harbor was reportedly brown until summer. But that wasn’t the end of it. Rescue workers, cleanup crews, and other pedestrians would track molasses throughout the city of Boston. Molasses could be found on subway platforms, on train seats, on payphone handsets, in homes, and everywhere else in between. For months, pretty much everything in Boston was sticky.

Causes For the Tank Rapture

The United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIAC), who owned the Purity Distilling Company, was quick to deflect blame for the tank rupture elsewhere. They claimed it was anarchists who used a bomb to blow the tank up. After an investigation, however, the real cause soon became more clear.

The molasses tank had been built in 1915. It was assembled quickly, and without any sort of consultation with engineers or architects. Had there been proper planning, perhaps someone would have let the company know that the tank walls were going to be too thin and too weak to hold 2 million gallons of molasses. The steel used for the tank, which was the same type used on the Titanic, was known to be susceptible to fracture when put under stress.  

In the end, it was this poor, quick, cheap construction that would serve as the tank’s undoing.

Aftermath of the Event

As one can probably image, North End residents (who were largely working-class) were not to happy with the USIAC. The company would soon find itself facing 125 lawsuits.

After nearly six years of hearing testimony from some 3,000 witness, Colonel Hugh Ogden of the Massachusetts Superior Court issued a report debunking the USIAC claim that anarchists were involved. He had determined that the tank’s construction and inspection had been inadequate, and found the USIAC liable for damage. Around $7,000 was paid to the family of each victim.

The Great Molasses Flood was no doubt a tragedy, but some good did come from this devastating event. The tank rupture helped highlight the need for greater safety and inspection for large construction projects. Eventually, laws would be passed in Massachusetts and other states requiring engineers and architects to inspect and approve such projects.

Today, a playground and baseball field can be found at the original site of the tank, with a small, easy-to-miss plaque commemorating the event nearby. According to locals, the scent of molasses still fills the air in North End on warm, summer days. The Great Molasses Flood lives on as one of the strangest things to happen anywhere.


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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 160 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.