97 Years Ago: The Great Molasses Flood Killed 21 People in Boston’s North End

January 15th is the anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood in Boston’s North End. The United States Industrial Alcohol Company constructed a faulty 50 foot high steel tank in 1918 on Commercial Street near where the bocce courts are located today at Langone Park. Despite many warnings that the tank was faulty, the molasses company ignored the welfare of the North End’s Italian immigrant population. Twenty one people were killed and another 150 injured when the tank ruptured and exploded on January 15, 1919.

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. Purity Distilling Company built the tank, 50 feet high and 90 feet wide, in the densely populated neighborhood of mostly Italian immigrants at the time.

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

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 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.

7 Replies to “97 Years Ago: The Great Molasses Flood Killed 21 People in Boston’s North End

  1. When I was growing up in the North End, my father , who was nine years old when the tank exploded, would tell us the story. Over the years, I would asked him to repeat it, many times, because it was both unbelievable and fascinating, to me. He is no longer with us, but seeing the film, and the pictures, makes me wish I could hear him tell it one more time.

  2. My dad was born January 16th 1919, my grandmother was in labor on the 15th. At the time my grandfather worked at the molasses factory and asked a friend to cover for him because he went to the hospital to be with my grandmother. His
    friend died in the molasses flood. My grandfather always said that my dad saved his life.

  3. Growing up I remember the old timers talking about that in the hot summer months for years after the molasses flood you could still smell the molasses throughout the neighborhood.

  4. I lived at Jackson ave. in the early sixties, does anyone know if the molasses flood hit near Commercial Street at the bottom of the Slide park?

  5. Dear Matt, just did some research and answered my own question. The molasses factory was where the bocce court is. Therefore it was below the Slide Park on Commercial St. Thanks for the interesting article on the molasses flood.

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