Yes you read that correctly. On this day 100 years ago molasses rushed out of its ill-kept steel tank and onto the streets of Boston, Massachusetts. Molasses is the dark gooey stuff that sits in your cabinet until the holidays when you use your annual one teaspoon and then back into the cabinet it goes. An innocuous little jar, yet in 1919 this sugary tsunami took the lives of 21 people and injured dozens. Most who perished in the wave died of asphyxiation. The byproduct of refined sugarcane, molasses was often used to make industrial alcohol, hence why it was being stored in a large vat near the buzzing industry of Boston Harbor. Molasses would arrive from Puerto Rico, get pumped into large steel vats in the surrounding industrial parks, and then be transported by train tankers to refineries in Cambridge. The Purity Distilling Company however did not take care of these large steel tanks as they maintained high heat in order to keep the molasses liquid. Like most industrial disasters, this could have been prevented with the proper foresight and perhaps like three seconds of asking “is this a good idea?”. Yet this was a money hungry company with a high demand for industrial alcohol so the precarious steel vats full of molten molasses sat next to the North End of Boston where many impoverished Italian immigrants called home during this time.
It was a particularly warm winter day for Boston on January 15th, 1919. A nice 40 degrees Fahrenheit or just under 5 degrees Celsius. With the high heat within the tank and less than ideal weather outside, the steel tank burst and unleashed a dark wave going about 35 mph (56 km/h [you are so welcome]). Imagine being hit by a car but its made of molasses. That’s what it was like for the victims of the flood that day. The sticky wasteland that the molasses left was almost worst than the initial disaster. Waist high molasses was stuck in the streets having cooled down and nearly solidifying. Maritime Trainees took weeks to cleanup the sticky streets. Some accounts even have the sickly sweet smell of molasses lasting two summers after the incident. So what has happened in the 100 years since one of the weirdest tragedies. For one building regulations in the area have been strictly enforced and just as well the Italian American community within the area is still going strong. Recently history enthusiasts of the area marked the exact spot of the tank with colored flags and commemorated the lives lost. They did note however the smell of molasses has since gone away in the area, and if you have ever smelled molasses you’ll know that’s the real happy ending.
If you are interested in learning more about the gruesome flood details, check out Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919