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The Boston Molasses Flood – 21 people killed in Boston streets by tidal wave of Molasses (1919)

The devastation after the Great Boston Molasses Flood in 1919

The Great Molasses Flood (aka Boston Molasses Disaster)

Damage from the Great Boston Molasses Flood in 1919

In the early 1900’s, molasses was a common sweetener and used to produce ethanol for alcoholic beverages and military munitions. It was, of course, in high demand. The five-story tall steel tank at 529 Commercial Street in Boston held 2.3 million gallons of molasses weighing an astonishing twenty-six million pounds. On January 15, 1919, the weather was warmer than normal, allowing the molasses inside the tank to heat up and thin. At 12:30 in the afternoon, people in the area heard a “sound like a rumble” and the ground shook. The Purity Distilling Company molasses tank had burst, releasing millions of gallons of molasses into the streets of Boston.

The tidal wave of molasses that rushed through the streets of Boston was an estimated 25-feet tall and moved at over 35 MPH. Buildings and homes were swept from their foundation and smashed by the thick rushing wave. The nearby Northend Paving Yard building was instantly shattered to kindling. Fire House No. 31 was moved from its foundation and partially destroyed. On Atlantic Avenue, steel girders of the Boston Elevated Railway were twisted, and a railroad car was tipped off the tracks.

Electric polies toppled, wires hissing and sparking across the ground, while people and horses were thrown about by the wave. 150 people were injured. 21 people died, either crushed under the weight of the dense molasses or drowned while attempting to escape the sticky substance. A medical examiner described their horrifying condition “as though covered in heavy oil skins – eyes and ears, mouths and noses filled.”

A man surveys the damage caused by the molasses flood

The Boston Post reported the circumstances:

“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. 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.”

Several blocks of Boston were flooded to a depth of 2-3 feet. One man recalls being stuck to the wall of a freight shed, feet dangling about three feet above the floor while he watched a horse drowning nearby. Smithsonian Magazine reported one child’s experience:

“Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him.”

The horrific death of twenty-one people

The first to arrive on the scene were Navy cadets from the nearby USS Nantucket, a training ship docked at the Massachusetts Nautical School. Soon after, Boston Police and the Red Cross joined in the rescue efforts.

Rescuers were forced to wade through deep molasses and debris to reach survivors. The cold air had caused the heated molasses to cool and thicken, making movement through the thick goop near impossible. Rescuers searched for survivors for four days before giving up. By this time, most of the victims were so glazed over in the molasses, they were impossible to recognize.

The aftermath

Cleanup

Salt water from a fireboat was used to wash the molasses away (for months the harbor was brown with molasses). Dry sand was brought in to absorb what remained. City officials spent more than a month cleaning up the mess. During that time, molasses was tracked throughout the city – into businesses, homes, streets, and streetcars. Per one resident, for months “everything a Bostonian touched was sticky”.

Lawsuit against United States Industrial Alcohol Company

Residents sued the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (owners of Purity Distilling Company) who claimed the vat had been blown up by anarchists. Prosecutors countered, saying the company had overfilled the tanks to accelerate alcohol production and outrace prohibition. The company eventually lost, and survivors received approximately $7,000 per victim.

Long term effects from the spill

For months after, residents in the city suffered severe coughing fits. Bostonians say that for decades, on hot days, the area still smelled of molasses.

Additional information

Today the sight of the tragedy is the location of Langone Park. It houses a Little League baseball field and a playground. A small plaque memorializes the victims.

Fatalities of the disaster

Patrick Breen 44 Laborer (North End Paving Yard)

William Brogan 61 Teamster

Bridget Clougherty 65 Homemaker

Stephen Clougherty 34 Unemployed

John Callahan 43 Paver (North End Paving Yard)

Maria Di Stasio 10 Child

William Duffy 58 Laborer (North End Paving Yard)

Peter Francis 64 Blacksmith (North End Paving Yard)

Flaminio Gallerani 37 Driver

Pasquale Iantosca 10 Child

James H. Kenneally Unknown Laborer (North End Paving Yard)

Eric Laird 17 Teamster

George Layhe 38 Firefighter (Engine 31)

James Lennon 64 Teamster/Motorman

Ralph Martin 21 Driver

James McMullen 46 Foreman, Bay State Express

Cesar Nicolo 32 Expressman

Thomas Noonan 43 Longshoreman

Peter Shaughnessy 18 Teamster

John M. Seiberlich 69 Blacksmith (North End Paving Yard)

Michael Sinnott 76 Messenger

Boston Post article recounting details of the Boston Molasses disaster

A 50-foot wave of molasses—2,300,000 gallons of it—released in some manner yet unexplained, from a giant tank, swept over Commercial street and its waterfront from Charter street to the southerly end of North End park yesterday afternoon.

Ensnaring in its sticky flood more than 100 men, women, and children; crushing buildings, teams, automobiles, and street cars—everything in its path—the black, reeking mass slapped against the side of the buildings footing Copp’s Hill and then swished back toward the harbor.

Eleven persons—a woman, a girl, and nine men—were the known dead at midnight. More than 50 injured were in hospitals and at their homes. Some of them may die. Dead horses, cats, and dogs have been carted away in team after team….

A rumble, a hiss—some say a boom and a swish—and the wave of molasses swept out. It smote the huge steel girders of the “L” structure and bent, twisted, and snapped them, as if by the smash of a giant’s fist. Across the street, down the street, it rolled like a two-sided breaker at the seashore. Thirty feet high, it smashed against tenements on the edge of Copp’s Hill. Swirling back it sucked a modest frame dwelling from where it nestled beside the three-story brick tenements and threw it, a mass of wreckage, under the “L” structure.

Then, balked by the staunch brick walls of the houses at the foot of the hill, the death-dealing mass swept back towards the water. Like eggshells it crushed the buildings of the North End yard of the city’s paving division…To the north it swirled and wiped out practically all of Boston’s only electric freight terminal. Big steel trolley freight cars were crushed as if eggshells, and their piled-up cargo of boxes and merchandise minced like so much sandwich meat.

The Boston Post, January 16, 1919

Photo gallery

Image Credits

Molasses floods the streets as rescuers try to look for survivors via All That's Interesting by Boston City Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Onlookers stand near the tank 30 minutes after the explosion via All That's Interesting by Boston Public Library with usage type - Public Domain
Atlantic Avenue railway tracks over Commercial Street twisted by the force of the flood via All That's Interesting by Boston Public Library with usage type - Public Domain
A worker uses an acetylene torch to cut through a section of the ruptured tank via All That's Interesting by Boston Public Library with usage type - Public Domain
A crowd gathers to clean up the damage and search for any survivors via All That's Interesting by Boston Globe with usage type - Public Domain
A railroad car that was destroyed in the flood via All That's Interesting by Boston Globe with usage type - Public Domain
A view of the destroyed train trestle from atop the tracks via All That's Interesting by Boston City Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Puddles of sticky molasses via All That's Interesting by Boston City Archives with usage type - Public Domain
The molasses tank in the North End of Boston, before its explosion in 1919 via Wikipedia Commons by The Bostonian Society with usage type - Public Domain. Before 1919-01-15
An overhead view of the flood aftermath from the elevated train tracks via All That's Interesting by Boston City Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Citizens walk atop the damaged train trestle to survey damage via All That's Interesting by Boston City Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Flood damage as seen from beneath the destroyed train trestle via All That's Interesting by Boston City Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Rescue workers, knee-high in molasses, struggle to free trapped victims via All That's Interesting by Boston Public Library with usage type - Public Domain
Wide view of Boston molasses disaster damage and puddle of molasses via Mass Moments by Boston Post with usage type - Public Domain
Boston Molasses destroyed bridge cars via Northeastern University by Boston Herald with usage type - Public Domain
A man surveys the damage caused by the molasses flood via All That's Interesting by Boston Globe with usage type - Public Domain
Sailors helping with the rescue after the Great Boston Molasses Flood in 1919 via NBC News by Boston Fire Department Archives with usage type - Public Domain
The firehouse after the Great Boston Molasses Flood in 1919 via NBC News by Boston Fire Department Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Damage from the Great Boston Molasses Flood in 1919 via NBC News by Boston Fire Department Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Wreckage under elevated train tracks from the molasses disaster via WBUR by "The Great Molasses Flood," by Deborah Kops with usage type - Public Domain
Red Cross workers assist at the Boston molasses disaster via Boston.com by The Boston Glove Archives with usage type - Public Domain
A map of the flood was printed in the paper in the days following the disaster via Boston.com with usage type - Public Domain
Welder's cutting tanks looking for bodies buried by molasses via Boston.com with usage type - Public Domain
The devastation after the Great Boston Molasses Flood in 1919 via NBC News by Boston Fire Department Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Boston Post edition of January 16, 1919 describing the Boston Molasses Disaster via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain. January 16, 1919
Elevated train structure damaged by shrapnel from the 1919 Boston Molasses Disaster via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain. 1919

Featured Image Credit

The devastation after the Great Boston Molasses Flood in 1919 via NBC News by Boston Fire Department Archives with usage type - Public Domain