One hundred years ago on January 15th, 1919, Boston suffered one of history’s strangest disasters: a devastating flood of molasses. The ‘Great Molasses Flood’ tore through the city’s North End and deposited so much gooey residue that locals claimed they could still smell the molasses on warm days decades later, writes PETER SMITH
January 15th, 1919 seemed a normal day in Boston, U.S.A., until lunchtime that is, then, what was probably the most bizarre event in the city’s history occurred.
A huge molasses tank blew up, releasing two million gallons of molasses which then swept through the streets in a wave 15 feet high and 160 feet wide travelling at a speed of 35 miles an hour. Anything or anybody in its way was either swept away or crushed to death.
The tank belonged to the Purity Distilling Company, based in north Boston, and the molasses had been stored in the tank awaiting transfer to the company’s distillery in Cambridge. Molasses could be fermented to produce rum and were also an important ingredient in the production and manufacture of munitions.
About 12.30 pm the 50 foot high tank burst and collapsed with onlookers describing how it seemed as though the ground was shaking and when the rivets shot out, it sounded as though a machine gun was firing.
A massive stream of molasses was released and huge chunks of steel flew everywhere, one smashing through a stone pillar supporting the Boston Elevated Railroad. One section of this railroad sagged and fell towards the ground and one train was forced off the track.
An even greater disaster was averted only because one of the brakemen on this particular train jumped from his brake van and raced along the tracks to warn an oncoming train.
Nearby buildings were swept from their foundations and the whole area was flooded to a depth of almost 3 feet.
The ‘Boston Post’ reported how “Here and there struggled a form – whether it was animal or human was impossible to tell. Horses died like flies on a sticky fly paper. The more anyone struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings suffered likewise.”
A three-storey house was seen soaring through the air and a truck was picked up and hurled into Boston harbour.