January 15th is the anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 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 Langone Park is located today. 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, a subsidiary of U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company, built the tank, 50 feet high and 90 feet wide.
The tragedy in the densely populated, largely Italian-American immigrant North End neighborhood at the time, was initially believed to be the result of a terrorist act. Taking advantage of the anti-Italian sentiment at the time, company attorneys for the tank-owner tried to blame sabotage by political anarchists. The resulting investigation and legal hearings – involving 125 lawsuits – was the longest up until then in the history of the Massachusetts court system. It ended in 1926 with a conclusive judgment: the tank had been improperly designed in the first instance and its failure was due entirely to structural weakness, not to a terrorist attack.
A 2016 research study on the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 in Boston’s North End says that January’s cold weather made the molasses extra deadly. The cooling increased the thickness of the sweet syrup, making it incredibly hard to escape.
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.
Last year, for the 100th anniversary of the Molasses Flood, there were a number of events in the North End, including a commemoration event with residents and dignitaries forming a human circle where the tank once stood. Read more NorthEndWaterfront.com coverage over the years of the flood by searching the tag: Great Molasses Flood.