Fiery hot molasses floods the streets of Boston on this day in 1919, killing 21 people and injuring scores of others. The molasses burst from a huge tank at the United States Industrial Alcohol Company building in the heart of the city.

The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

The United States Industrial Alcohol building was located on Commercial Street near North End Park in Boston. It was close to lunch time on January 15 and Boston was experiencing some unseasonably warm weather as workers were loading freight-train cars within the large building. Next to the workers was a 58-foot-high tank filled with 2.5 million gallons of crude molasses.

(Photo courtesy of Bill Noonan, Boston Fire Department Archives)

(Photo courtesy of Bill Noonan, Boston Fire Department Archives)

Suddenly, the bolts holding the bottom of the tank exploded, shooting out like bullets, and the hot molasses rushed out. An eight-foot-high wave of molasses swept away the freight cars and caved in the building’s doors and windows. The few workers in the building’s cellar had no chance as the liquid poured down and overwhelmed them.

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The huge quantity of molasses then flowed into the street outside. It literally knocked over the local firehouse and then pushed over the support beams for the elevated train line. The hot and sticky substance then drowned and burned five workers at the Public Works Department. In all, 21 people and dozens of horses were killed in the flood. It took weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston.

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Legend

  1. Purity Distilling molasses tank
  2. Firehouse 31 (heavy damage)
  3. Paving department and police station
  4. Purity offices (flattened)
  5. Copp’s Hill Terrace
  6. Boston Gas Light building (damaged)
  7. Purity warehouse (mostly intact)
  8. Residential area (site of flattened Clougherty house)

 

This disaster also produced an epic court battle, as more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. After a six-investigation that involved 3,000 witnesses and 45,000 pages of testimony, a special auditor finally determined that the company was at fault because the tank used had not been strong enough to hold the molasses. Nearly $1 million was paid in settlement of the claims.

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Today the sites of the molasses tank and the North End Paving Company have been turned into a recreational complex, officially named Langone Park, featuring a Little League ballfield, a playground, and bocce courts. Immediately to the east is the larger Puopolo Park, with additional recreational facilities.

Erected by the Bostonian Society near the site of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. It reads, "On January 15, 1919, a molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. Structural defects in the tank combined with unseasonably warm temperatures contributed to the disaster."

Erected by the Bostonian Society near the site of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. It reads, “On January 15, 1919, a molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. Structural defects in the tank combined with unseasonably warm temperatures contributed to the disaster.”

A small plaque at the entrance to Puopolo Park, placed by the Bostonian Society, commemorates the disaster.  The plaque, entitled “Boston Molasses Flood”, reads:

On January 15, 1919, a molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. Structural defects in the tank combined with unseasonably warm temperatures contributed to the disaster.

One of the DUKW amphibious tourist vehicles operated by Boston Duck Tours, appropriately painted dark brown, has been named Molly Molasses in remembrance of the event, per the firm’s practice of naming their DUKWs after famous Boston locations, events and other bits of local culture.

Here is a 6:26 video about this major disaster in history.

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2 responses

  1. Ann Koplow says:

    Thanks for commemorating, so well, this tragic event from my home town.

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    • From time to time, we hear on the news about industrial spills, normally some tractor trailer on the interstate but what happened on Boston in 1919 sounds unbelievable. I have to admit, I had not heard the story before. I asked my husband if he had and he had.

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