Overview of Boston's Great Molasses Flood disaster - burst tank seen in background

The Great Molasses Flood (aka Boston Molasses Disaster)

Railway girders destoryed by the Boston Molasses DisasterAt the time, 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 26 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, persons 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.”

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.”

Railway girders destoryed by the Boston Molasses DisasterSeveral 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 3 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


Rescuers attempting to reach victims of the Great Molasses FloodSalt 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

Photo gallery

Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times, Boston Post, History Today, Popular Science

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