Remembering The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Molasses tank before it ruptured, looking down Commercial Street with the elevated railway on the left. (Image: Boston Fire Department Archives, Bill Noonan)


Latest news: A new study in the Civil and Structural Engineer Magazine (September 2014) by Ronald Mayville has provided more details on specifically the molasses tank failed. Notably, the walls were at least 50 percent too thin and lacked reinforcements at certain areas of stress. Read more in the January 14th Boston Globe article.

Video: The Great Boston North End Molasses Flood was the subject of “The Folklorist” television program.

January 15th is the anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 in Boston’s North End. The Purity Distilling Company (a subsidiary of US Industrial Alcohol) constructed a faulty 50 foot high steel tank in 1918 on Commercial Street near where the bocce courts are located today at Langone Park. Warnings that the tank was failing were ignored.

Twenty one people were killed and another 150 injured when the tank ruptured and exploded. A huge wave of the syrupy brown liquid moved down Commercial Street at a speed of 35 mph over two blocks destroying all in its path. In today’s dollars, the property damage is estimated at over $100 million.

The disaster brought nationwide attention to the lack of industrial safety standards. Complaints of cracks and leaks in the tank were literally covered with brown paint by the company that initially said anarchists blew up the tank. Later, a lengthy class action lawsuit brought forward damaging evidence resulting in a settlement of $600,000 (~$11 million in today’s dollars).

Although Purity used the molasses for industrial alcohol, some hypothesize that the tank was overfilled because of the the prohibition threat for possible use later to distill rum.

Neighborhood folklore has it that you can still smell the ill-sweet remains in the summer’s hottest weather.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Mass Moments, Wired)

See more at the Boston Public Library’s Flickr gallery.