Great Molasses Flood
The Boston Molasses Disaster which is also known as the Great Molasses Flood or The Great Boston Molasses Tragedy occurred on January 15, 1919, in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. A large molasses treacle tank burst and a wave of molasses ran through the streets at an estimated 35 mph (56 km/h), killing 21 and injuring 150. The event has entered local folklore, and residents claim that on hot summer days the area still smells of molasses.<ref name=Smithsonian>Template:Cite journal</ref >
The disaster occurred at the Purity Distilling Company facility on January 15, 1919, one day before the 18th Amendment (which mandated prohibition of alcohol production) was ratified. January 15, 1919 was an unusually warm day. At the time, molasses was the standard sweetener in the United States; it has now been supplanted by high fructose corn syrup. Molasses can also be fermented to produce ethyl alcohol which is used in making liquor and was a key component in the manufacturing of munitions. The stored molasses was awaiting transfer to the Purity plant situated between Willow Street and what is now named Evereteze Way in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
At 529 Commercial Street, a huge molasses tank 50 ft (15 m) tall, 90 ft (27 m) in diameter and containing as much as 2,300,000 US gal (8,700,000 L) collapsed. Witnesses stated that when it collapsed there was a loud rumbling sound then what sounded like a machine gun as the rivets shot out of the tank. The ground was shaking as if a train was passing by.<ref name=massmoments>Template:Cite web</ref>
The collapse unleashed an immense wave of molasses between 8 and 15 ft (2.5 to 4.5 m) high, moving at 35 mph (56 kph) and exerting a pressure of 2 ton/ft² (200 kPa).<ref name=ooze>Template:Cite web</ref> The molasses wave was of sufficient force to break the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway's Atlantic Avenue structure and lift a train off the tracks. Nearby, buildings were swept off their foundations and crushed. Several blocks were flooded to a depth of 2 to 3 feet.
"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." <ref name=DarkTide> Puleo, Stephen “Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919” Page 98. Beacon Press, 2004 ISBN 0-8070-5021-0</ref>
The Boston Globe reported that people "were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet" Others had debris hurled at them from the rush of sweet smelling air and a truck was picked up and hurled into Boston Harbor. On that day more than 159 were injured and 21 people and several horses were killed as the molasses crushed and asphyxiated some. After the initial blast the molasses choking the wounded people, horses and dogs became one of the biggest problems.
.... 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 sisters staring at him<ref name=Smithsonian/>
First to the scene were 116 sailors from the lightship U.S.S Nantucket training ship that was docked nearby. They ran several blocks toward the accident. They worked to keep the curious from getting in the way of the rescuers while others entered into the knee-deep sticky mess to pull out the survivors. Soon the Boston police, Red Cross, Army and other Navy personal arrived. Some nurses from the Red Cross dived into the molasses while others tended to the wounded, keeping them warm and made hot coffee as well as keeping the exhausted workers fed. Many of these people worked through the night. The injured were so many that doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital in a nearby building. Rescuers found it difficult to make their way through the syrup to help the victims. It took four days before they stopped searching for victims; many dead were so glazed over in molasses, they were hard to recognize. Two who could not be identified were found on the fourth day.
It took 133 man-months to remove the molasses from the cobblestone streets, theaters, businesses, automobiles, and homes.<ref name=DarkTide/> The harbor ran brown until summer. Local residents brought a class-action lawsuit, one of the first held in Massachusetts, against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which had bought Purity Distilling in 1917. In spite of the company's attempts to claim that the tank had been blown up by anarchists (because some of the alcohol produced was to be used in making munitions) it ultimately paid out $600,000 in out-of-court settlements (at least $6.6 million in 2005 dollars).<ref name=StraightD>Template:Cite web</ref>
United States Industrial Alcohol did not rebuild the tank. The property became a yard for the Boston Elevated Railway (predecessor to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) and is currently the site of a city-owned baseball field.
The smell supposedly lingered for many years; indeed, according to local folklore, molasses left from this disaster can still be smelled on hot days.<ref name=Smithsonian/>
The cause of the accident is not known with certainty; though at the time authorities were quick to blame bomb throwing anti-war anarchists.<ref name=Bcom>Template:Cite paper</ref>
More likely are the several factors that occurred on that day and the previous days may have contributed to the disaster. The tank may have been shoddily constructed, insufficiently tested, and overfilled. Due to fermentation occurring within the tank, carbon dioxide production would have raised the pressure inside the tank. The rise in the local temperatures that occurred over the previous day also would have assisted in the building of this pressure. Records show that the air temperature rose from 2°F to 41° F (-17°C to 4°C) over that period.
An inquiry after the disaster revealed that Arthur Jell, who oversaw the construction, neglected basic safety tests, such as filling the tank with water to check for leaks. When filled with molasses, the tank leaked so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks. Local residents collected leaked molasses for their homes.
Some claim that given the timing of the accident, the tank may have been overfilled so that the owners could produce as much ethanol for liquor as possible before Prohibition came into effect. But the 18th Amendment would not become law for another year, and the Volstead Act would not ban the production of industrial alcohol.
- Equistar Chemicals, successor to United States Industrial Alcohol (Purity's parent company)
- What caused the great Boston Molasses Flood? from the Massachusetts Historical Society
- The Molasses Disaster of January 15, 1919 Reprinted from Yankee Magazine
- An interview with Stephen Puleo, the author of the book above
- Molasses flood site, present-day pictures and list of 1919 inhabitants (via archive.org)he:אסון הדבשה של בוסטון