From the Back of the Class | Issue 13

From the Back of the Class | Issue 13

The Great Molasses Flood

On 15 January 1919, Boston suffered one of history’s strangest disasters — a devastating flood of molasses. The “Great Molasses Flood” tore through the working-class North End district and deposited so much of the sticky stuff that apparently residents could still smell it on warm days decades later. 

What was all that molasses doing there, you may well ask, as Boston is not exactly famed for its gingerbread houses? With a little know-how, you can turn molasses into rum or industrial alcohol quite simply, and the Purity Distilling Company had built (shittily) a giant tank to house 2.5 million gallons of molasses to do just that. Although Prohibition would kick in the very next day after the tragedy, the company still had a license to distil alcohol for “industrial purposes”.

On 15 January the massive tank was full of the finest Puerto Rican molasses. Just after noon, something went horribly wrong. Witnesses later recalled hearing a noise like gunfire as the tank’s rivets popped and the steel sides ripped open. Suddenly, 26 million pounds of molasses were tearing down Commercial Street in a 15-foot wave.

A giant wave of a sticky foodstuff sounds somewhat comical, but the surging molasses was a shockingly destructive force. The wave moved at upwards of 35 miles per hour, and the power was sufficient to rip buildings from their foundations, snap the support girders from an elevated train track and smash houses. The property damage alone totalled around $100 million in today’s rates, roughly equivalent to Hurricane Sandy.

The human cost of the disaster was even grimmer. The wave of molasses moved so quickly and so forcefully that anyone who was unlucky enough to be in its way didn’t stand much of a chance. They were either knocked over and crushed or drowned in the goo. One man was lifted high up by the wave and got stuck to a wall where, safe though immobile, he watched the molasses drown a horse below. The flood took 21 lives, and another 150 people were injured. Any flood would have been disastrous, but the viscous nature of molasses made rescue attempts even trickier. Medics and police officers arrived on the scene quickly but had to wade through waist-deep goo to reach victims.

Even after the victims had been pulled from the muck, clean-up crews quickly learned that getting rid of 2.5 million gallons of molasses is no small task. They couldn’t succeed with fresh water and eventually figured out that salt water would cut through the molasses and allow them to wash it down the drain.

This article first appeared in Issue 13, 2015.
Posted 2:16pm Sunday 24th May 2015 by Finbarr Noble.