Great Molasses Flood

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Boston Molasses Disaster
Aftermath of the disaster
DateJanuary 15, 1919;100 years ago (1919-01-15)
Location Boston, Massachusetts
Coordinates 42°22′06.6″N71°03′21.0″W / 42.368500°N 71.055833°W / 42.368500; -71.055833 Coordinates: 42°22′06.6″N71°03′21.0″W / 42.368500°N 71.055833°W / 42.368500; -71.055833
Cause Cylinder stress failure
21 dead
150 injured

The Great Molasses Flood, also known as the Boston Molasses Disaster or the Great Boston Molasses Flood, occurred on January 15, 1919 in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. A large storage tank burst, filled with 2,300,000 US gal (8,700 m3)(8,706,447 liters) [1] (ca 12,000 tons; 10,886 metric tons; 24,000,000 lbs ) [2] of molasses, and a wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph (56 km/h), killing 21 and injuring 150. [3] The event entered local folklore and residents claimed for decades afterwards that the area still smelled of molasses on hot summer days. [4] [3]

North End, Boston Neighborhood of Boston in Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States

The North End is a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, United States. It has the distinction of being the city's oldest residential community, where people have continuously inhabited since it was settled in the 1630s. Though small, only 0.36 square miles (0.93 km2), the neighborhood has nearly one hundred establishments and a variety of tourist attractions. It is known for its Italian American population and fine Italian restaurants. The district is a pending Boston Landmark.

Boston Capital city of Massachusetts, United States

Boston is the capital and most populous city of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States. The city proper covers 48 square miles (124 km2) with an estimated population of 685,094 in 2017, making it also the most populous city in New England. Boston is the seat of Suffolk County as well, although the county government was disbanded on July 1, 1999. The city is the economic and cultural anchor of a substantially larger metropolitan area known as Greater Boston, a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) home to a census-estimated 4.8 million people in 2016 and ranking as the tenth-largest such area in the country. As a combined statistical area (CSA), this wider commuting region is home to some 8.2 million people, making it the sixth-largest in the United States.

Molasses viscous by-product of the refining of sugarcane, grapes, or sugar beets into sugar

Molasses or black treacle is a viscous product resulting from refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. Molasses varies by amount of sugar, method of extraction, and age of plant. Sugarcane molasses is primarily used for sweetening and flavoring foods in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. Sugar beet molasses is foul-smelling and unpalatable, so it is mostly used as an animal feed additive in Europe and Russia, where it is chiefly produced. Molasses is a defining component of fine commercial brown sugar.



Coverage from The Boston Post Boston post-January 16, 1919,.jpg
Coverage from The Boston Post

The disaster occurred at the Purity Distilling Company facility on January 15, 1919. The temperature had risen above 40 °F (4 °C), climbing rapidly from the frigid temperatures of the preceding days. [5] :91, 95 Molasses can be fermented to produce ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages and a key component in munitions. [5] :11 The stored molasses was awaiting transfer to the Purity plant situated between Willow Street and Evereteze Way in Cambridge.

The Purity Distilling Company was a chemical firm based in Boston, Massachusetts specializing in the production of ethanol through the distillation process. It was a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol Company who purchased the company in 1917.

Modern downtown Boston with molasses flood area circled Boston molasses area map.png
Modern downtown Boston with molasses flood area circled

A molasses tank stood at 529 Commercial Street near Keany Square which was 50 ft (15 m) tall and 90 ft (27 m) in diameter and contained as much as 2,300,000 US gal (8,700 m3)(8,706,447 liters); it collapsed at approximately 12:30 p.m. Witnesses reported that they felt the ground shake and heard a roar as it collapsed, a long rumble similar to the passing of an elevated train; others reported a tremendous crashing, a deep growling, "a thunderclap-like bang!", and a machine gun-like sound as the rivets shot out of the tank. [5] :92–95

Atlantic Avenue Elevated elevated railway in Boston, Massachusetts

The Atlantic Avenue Elevated was an elevated railway around the east side of Downtown Boston, Massachusetts, providing a second route for the Boston Elevated Railway's Main Line Elevated around the Washington Street Tunnel. It was in use from 1901 to 1938, when it was closed due to low ridership, later being demolished.

Molasses density is about 1.4 tonnes/m3, 40 % [2] more dense than water, so it had a great deal of potential energy. [6] The collapse translated this energy into a wave of molasses 25 ft (8 m) high at its peak, [7] moving at 35 mph (56 km/h). [4] [3] The wave was of sufficient force to damage the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway's Atlantic Avenue structure and tip a railroad car momentarily off the tracks. Stephen Puleo describes how nearby buildings were swept off their foundations and crushed. Several blocks were flooded to a depth of 2 to 3 ft (60 to 90 cm). Puleo quotes a Boston Post report:

Potential energy form of energy

In physics, potential energy is the energy held by an object because of its position relative to other objects, stresses within itself, its electric charge, or other factors.

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. [5] :98

Damage to the Boston Elevated Railway caused by the flood Boston 1919 molasses disaster - el train structure.jpg
Damage to the Boston Elevated Railway caused by the flood

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. A truck was picked up and hurled into Boston Harbor. After the initial wave, the molasses became viscous, exacerbated by the cold temperatures, trapping those caught in the wave and making it even more difficult to rescue them. [6] About 150 people were injured, and 21 people and several horses were killed. Some were crushed and drowned by the molasses or by the debris that it carried within. [8] The wounded included people, horses, and dogs; coughing fits became one of the most common ailments after the initial blast. Edwards Park wrote of one child's experience in a 1983 article for Smithsonian:

Boston Harbor estuary and harbor of Massachusetts Bay in the northeastern United States

Boston Harbor is a natural harbor and estuary of Massachusetts Bay, and is located adjacent to the city of Boston, Massachusetts. It is home to the Port of Boston, a major shipping facility in the northeastern United States.

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. [4]


Detail of molasses flood area 1. Purity Distilling molasses tank 2. Firehouse 31 (heavy damage) 3. Paving department and police station 4. Purity offices (flattened) 5. Copps Hill Terrace 6. Boston Gas Light building (damaged) 7. Purity warehouse (mostly intact) 8. Residential area (site of flattened Clougherty house) Boston molasses detail map.png
Detail of molasses flood area 1. Purity Distilling molasses tank 2. Firehouse 31 (heavy damage) 3. Paving department and police station 4. Purity offices (flattened) 5. Copps Hill Terrace 6. Boston Gas Light building (damaged) 7. Purity warehouse (mostly intact) 8. Residential area (site of flattened Clougherty house)

First to the scene were 116 cadets under the direction of Lieutenant Commander H. J. Copeland from USS Nantucket, a training ship of the Massachusetts Nautical School (now the Massachusetts Maritime Academy) that was docked nearby at the playground pier. [9] They ran several blocks toward the accident and 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. The Boston Police, Red Cross, Army, and Navy personnel soon arrived. Some nurses from the Red Cross dove into the molasses, while others tended to the injured, keeping them warm and feeding the exhausted workers. Many of these people worked through the night, and the injured were so numerous 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, and four days elapsed before they stopped searching; many of the dead were so glazed over in molasses that they were hard to recognize. [4] Other victims were swept into Boston Harbor and were found three to four months after the disaster. [8]

Local residents brought a class-action lawsuit against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA) which had bought Purity Distilling in 1917. It was one of the first class-action suits in Massachusetts and is considered a milestone in paving the way for modern corporate regulation. [10] The company claimed that the tank had been blown up by anarchists [5] :165 because some of the alcohol produced was to be used in making munitions, but a court-appointed auditor found USIA responsible after three years of hearings, and the company ultimately paid out $628,000 in damages [10] ($9.08 million in 2018, adjusted for inflation). [11] Relatives of those killed reportedly received around $7,000 per victim (equivalent to $101,000 in 2018). [4]


Cleanup crews used salt water from a fireboat to wash away the molasses and sand to absorb it, [12] and the harbor was brown with molasses until summer. [13] The cleanup in the immediate area took weeks, [14] with several hundred people contributing to the effort, [5] :132–134, 139 [10] and it took longer to clean the rest of Greater Boston and its suburbs. Rescue workers, cleanup crews, and sight-seers had tracked molasses through the streets and spread it to subway platforms, to the seats inside trains and streetcars, to pay telephone handsets, into homes, [4] [5] :139 and to countless other places. "Everything that a Bostonian touched was sticky." [4]


Patrick Breen44Laborer (North End Paving Yard)
William Brogan61Teamster
Bridget Clougherty65Homemaker
Stephen Clougherty34Unemployed
John Callahan43Paver (North End Paving Yard)
Maria Di Stasio10Child
William Duffy58Laborer (North End Paving Yard)
Peter Francis64Blacksmith (North End Paving Yard)
Flaminio Gallerani37Driver
Pasquale Iantosca10Child
James H. KenneallyUnknownLaborer (North End Paving Yard)
Eric Laird17Teamster
George Layhe38Firefighter (Engine 31)
James Lennon64Teamster/Motorman
Ralph Martin21Driver
James McMullen46Foreman, Bay State Express
Cesar Nicolo32Expressman
Thomas Noonan43Longshoreman
Peter Shaughnessy18Teamster
John M. Seiberlich69Blacksmith (North End Paving Yard)
Michael Sinnott78Messenger

Sources: [5] :239 [9] [15]


The molasses tank, date unknown North End molasses tank.jpg
The molasses tank, date unknown

Several factors might have contributed to the disaster. The tank was constructed poorly and tested insufficiently, and carbon dioxide production might have raised the internal pressure due to fermentation in the tank. Warmer weather the previous day would have assisted in building this pressure, as the air temperature rose from 2 to 41 °F (−17 to 5.0 °C) over that period. The failure occurred from a manhole cover near the base of the tank, and a fatigue crack there possibly grew to the point of criticality.

The tank had been filled to capacity only eight times since it was built a few years previously, putting the walls under an intermittent, cyclical load. Several authors say that the Purity Distilling Company was trying to out-race prohibition, [16] [17] [18] as the 18th amendment was ratified the next day (January 16, 1919) and took effect one year later. [19] An inquiry after the disaster revealed that Arthur Jell neglected basic safety tests while overseeing construction of the tank, such as filling it with water to check for leaks, and ignored warning signs such as groaning noises each time the tank was filled. [3] When filled with molasses, the tank leaked so badly that it was painted brown to hide them. Local residents collected leaked molasses for their homes. [20] A 2014 investigation applied modern engineering analysis and found that the steel was half as thick as it should have been for a tank of its size, even with the lax standards of the day, and it also lacked manganese and was made more brittle as a result. [21] The tank's rivets were also apparently flawed, and cracks first formed at the rivet holes. [3]

In 2016, a team of scientists and students at Harvard University conducted extensive studies of the disaster, gathering data from many sources, including 1919 newspaper articles, old maps, and weather reports. [22] The student researchers also studied the behavior of cold corn syrup flooding a scale model of the affected neighborhood. [23] The researchers concluded that the reports of the high speed of the flood were credible. [23]

Two days before the disaster, warmer molasses had been added to the tank, reducing the viscosity of the fluid. When the tank collapsed, the fluid cooled quickly as it spread, until it reached Boston's winter evening temperatures and the viscosity increased dramatically. [24] The Harvard study concluded that the molasses cooled and thickened quickly as it rushed through the streets, hampering efforts to free victims before they suffocated. [22] [23] [23] [25]

Area today

Molasses Flood historical marker Molasses Flood Historical Marker.jpg
Molasses Flood historical marker

United States Industrial Alcohol did not rebuild the tank. The property formerly occupied by the molasses tank and the North End Paving Company became a yard for the Boston Elevated Railway (predecessor to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority). It currently is the site of a city-owned recreational complex, officially named Langone Park, featuring a Little League Baseball field, a playground, and bocce courts. [26] Immediately to the east is the larger Puopolo Park, with additional recreational facilities. [27]

A small plaque at the entrance to Puopolo Park, placed by the Bostonian Society, commemorates the disaster. [28] The plaque, titled "Boston Molasses Flood", reads:

On January 15, 1919, a molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. Structural defects in the tank combined with unseasonably warm temperatures contributed to the disaster.

The accident has since become a staple of local culture, not only for the damage the flood brought, but also for the sweet smell that filled the North End for decades after the disaster. [4] According to journalist Edwards Park, "The smell of molasses remained for decades a distinctive, unmistakable atmosphere of Boston." [4]

On January 15, 2019, for the 100th anniversary of the event, a ceremony was held in remembrance. Ground-penetrating radar was used to locate the exact location of the tank from 1919. The concrete slab base for the tank remains in place approximately 20 inches below the surface of the baseball diamond at Langone Park. Attendees of the ceremony stood in a circle marking the edge of the tank. The 21 names of those who died in, or as a result of, the flood were read aloud. [29] [30]

Cultural influences

Many laws and regulations governing construction were changed as a direct result of the disaster, including requirements for oversight by a licensed architect and civil engineer. [31] [6]

One of the DUKW amphibious tourist vehicles operated by Boston Duck Tours has been named Molly Molasses in remembrance of the event, per the firm's practice of naming their DUKWs after famous Boston locations, events, and other bits of local culture. [32]

The Great Molasses Flood was also the theme of the 2019 MIT Mystery Hunt. [33]

See also

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