Arts & Culture Community Featured

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 Centennial Anniversary

Tuesday, January 15, will mark the 100th anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 in Boston’s historic North End.

There will be a remembrance ceremony on Tuesday, at 10:30 am at the Langone Park site on Commercial Street. The City’s Archaeologist Joseph Bagley, has arranged to have a ground-penetrating radar survey conducted at the site of the flood. The survey will help him construct a map of the flood and form a human-outline of the area on Tuesday morning. He and other City officials will offer a few words and moment of silence.

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919, courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Twenty-one people died after a molasses tank, built by the Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company, exploded along Commercial Street at the site where Langone Park is located today. The destruction, as seen above, was catastrophic. The elevated railway that ran above Commercial Street at the time can be seen at the very left edge of the photo.

The company built the faulty 50-foot-high steel tank in 1915. In a hurry to complete the project and start churning a profit, they did not carry out all the structural tests necessary that would have revealed the tank’s flaws. Later, it would be discovered that cracks and leaks in the tank were covered up with brown paint.

As the syrupy brown liquid moved down Commercial Street on that fateful sunny day, it traveled over two blocks at a speed of 35 mph. People, horses and even a house were taken out by the wave. In addition to those killed, about 150 people were injured during the accident.

“Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form‍ – whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell,” the Boston Post reported at the time. “Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings‍ – men and women‍ – suffered likewise.” 

The Boston Post front page news coverage of the Molasses Disaster, January 16, 1919 (Courtesy Boston Public Library)

At the time, residents thought it was a terror attack against the Italian-American neighborhood. An investigation later revealed that the structure was improperly designed and failed due to structural weakness. A settlement of $600,000 was reached.

Wreckage under the elevated railway where many express trucks parked, Molasses Disaster – Leslie Jones copyright – Courtesy of Boston Public Library.

The historic event has become infamous. It was even discussed on Comedy Central hit TV show Drunk History. 

Francine Pellegrino spent two decades creating a musical about the event called Molasses in January, according to the Boston Globe. It was off-Broadway for two months last year.

“I thought it was a made-up story,” she said to the Globe. “But the more I read — about how everyone knew the tank was going to burst and no one did anything about it — I wanted to incorporate it.”

There have also been several books written about the event. 

Section of tank after Molasses Disaster explosion. 1:00pm – Leslie Jones copyright – Courtesy of Boston Public Library

There is a four-piece band called The Great Molasses Food. They will be playing at Club Passim in Cambridge on January 15 in honor of the 100th anniversary. 

A research study done in 2016 discovered the cold weather is what made the tragedy so fatal. The weather quickly turned frigid that day, causing the deadly brown syrup to increase in thickness, making it impossible to escape.

The aftermath had a major impact on the construction industry. Engineering certification laws were adopted. Also, a new requirement of an engineer overseeing all plans for development before a town issues a permit was enforced.

One Reply to “The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 Centennial Anniversary

  1. Why is it that the only reminder of this tragedy in the NE is a plaque if you can find it that is the size of a postage stamp?

Comments are closed.