Boston’s North End was the site of one of America’s strangest disasters – one that is barely remembered today, but is at once so absurd and nightmarish that it’s hard to believe it ever occurred. We’re talking about the Great Molasses Flood, which happened on January 15, 1919 and killed 21 people, wounded 150 more, and destroyed trucks, streetcars, and buildings.
Molasses is not typically thought of as a deadly substance: it’s used primarily as a sweetener in baking and candy-making, and as an ingredient in making rum. The problem arose when the Purity Distilling Company kept over 2.3 gallons of the sticky, viscous substance in a storage tank what was 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, built with flawed steel, and poorly maintained. When the tank burst, it unleashed a wave between 15 and 40 feet high and 160 feet wide that moved at roughly 25 miles per hour, throwing a truck into the harbor, flattening buildings, and suffocating nearby horses and men, women, and children in a quicksand-like flood. The Engine 31 firehouse’s second floor collapsed as it was knocked off its foundations and firefighters playing cards on their lunch break were trapped. While most of the firefighters were freed after a few hours, one drowned in the molasses.
As the cold hardened the molasses, rescuers were faced with the daunting task of removing bodies from the tar-like substance, and clean-up efforts took weeks; one victim’s body was only recovered from the harbor four months later. The neighborhood smelled like molasses for months and the water in the harbor was discolored into the summer.
While United States Industrial Alcohol, the owners of Purity Distilling Company, tried to claim that the act was sabotage or terrorism, poor planning and lack of oversight were ultimately found to be the causes of the disaster. USIA paid $618,000 (roughly $8 million today) to the victims and their families. At the time it was the largest lawsuit in Massachusetts’ history.
Today, the location of the disaster looks completely different. The elevated train trestle is gone, and the harbor has a small park and baseball fields in the place where the tanks used to be. There is a small memorial marker commemorating the horrific event, but little else to indicate that the site was the site of one of the most bizarre disasters in US history.
Matthew Christopher MA Boston Apr 28, 2023 Disasters History Memorials