Last week – January 15th – was the 96th anniversary of The Great Molasses Flood. Maybe you’ve heard about this, maybe you haven’t, but either way it is one of Boston’s most bizarre disasters. A large molasses storage tank burst, and a massive wave of molasses rushed through the streets at 35 miles per hour.
Let me repeat that – a MASSIVE WAVE OF MOLASSES rushed through the streets at 35 MILES PER HOUR.
It was a tragedy. Buildings were ripped off their foundations. A truck was hurled into the Boston Harbor. 21 people died. 150 were injured.
Here’s how it happened – a chemical firm called the Purity Distilling Company specialized in producing ethanol and rum through the distillation of molasses. Molasses was also the standard sweetener of the time, so business was going well. One day, the company was getting ready to transport 2.3 million gallons of Puerto Rican molasses to a nearby plant in Cambridge. The tank was 50 feet tall and 90 feet wide (!). And then it collapsed, and all hell broke loose.
Here is how the Boston Post described it:
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.
The Army was summoned. They worked through the night, trying to rescue as many people as they could. Rescuers found it difficult to make their way through the syrup. Doctors and nurses set up a makeshift hospital. It took four days before they stopped searching for victims.
Cleanup crews had to use saltwater to wash the hardened molasses away and sand to absorb it. Because of the foot traffic of rescue workers, molasses moved around the city quickly. For months, “everything a Bostonian touched was sticky.”
Local residents filed a class-action lawsuit against Purity Distilling. Amazingly, and I swear this is true, Purity Distilling claimed that the tank had been blown up by anarchists*. After three years of hearings, a court-appointed auditor found Purity Distlling responsible, and they had to pay out $600,000 in out-of-court settlements.
*What likely caused the accident was a sudden increase in temperature. The temperature had risen to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit after several days of frigid cold.
For decades, local residents in the North End claimed they could smell molasses on warm summer days.