Revisiting the Great Molasses Flood, the Tragedy That Left a Lingering Scent

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Imagine that it’s January 15th, 1919, just after noon, and you are walking around Boston’s north end, when you suddenly hear a sound rip through the air. It sounds like gunfire, but in reality it is the sound of rivets bursting from the steel sides of a tank. Suddenly, you are running for your life as 26 million pounds of molasses forming a 15 foot wave rip through the streets behind you, tearing up everything in its path. Decades later people will claim that, on hot days, they can still smell the molasses in the air. This may sound like a surreal nightmare, but it actually happened.

The incident, known as Boston’s Great Molasses Flood, erupted from a tank constructed by the Purity Distilling Company in 1915. While prohibition would kick in just one year and one day later (January 16th, 1920), Purity’s parent company–the United State Industrial Alcohol Company–did have a license for distilling alcohol for industrial use. The tank was massive: 50 ft. x 90 ft. and capable of holding up to 2.5 million gallons of molasses.

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On the day of the disaster, the tank had just been filled with 2.3 million gallons of Puerto Rican molasses, so it was close to full (give or take 200,000 gallons). The molasses spill was incredibly destructive. The wave moved at 35 miles per hour, ripping buildings from their foundations. It collapsed an elevated train track, destroyed homes, and crushed and drowned any person with the poor luck to be standing in its path. Twenty-one people lost their lives, and 150 were injured.

Now, if you’ve ever dealt with molasses, in baking or home distilling, you probably know just how thick and resistant it is. It’s a hassle just to clean it off of a spoon, so you can imagine just how difficult it was to clean over 2 million gallons of it from the streets and buildings of Boston. After trying to remove the sticky stuff with fresh water from their hoses, firefighters quickly learned that coarse saltwater was the solution. It took over 80,000 hours to complete the cleanup.

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Naturally, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company was more than eager to shift the blame elsewhere. While some theorized that fermentation inside the tank led to combustion, the USIA suggested that anarchists may have been responsible. By their logic, the use of alcohol for government munitions would be all the reason anarchists would need to detonate a bomb on a large vat of molasses–of course, if a major industrial company is trying to vaguely shift the blame to anarchists or any group of people considered in any way radical, chances are the company perpetrated the crime itself. (Which is why versions of this very same scenario happen to this day.)

Recent research has shown that the walls of the tank were too thin, and the steel used to make them too weak and brittle, to withstand something as dense as 2.3 million gallons of molasses. Because the molasses was being used to make munitions for WWI, construction was rushed and done as cheaply as possible.  While the company that built the tank was supposedly reputable, no engineers were consulted in its construction, and no proper inspections were made. After multiple uses, the tank finally gave way. In fact, even before the disaster, the tank was starting to show signs that it couldn’t withstand the pressure. (This is where the negligence comes in.) Nearby residents reported leaks coming from the tank, which the United States Industrial Alcohol Company resolved not by reinforcing or rebuilding, but by simply painting the tank brown to disguise the early signs of wear.

Victims who had lost their homes and loved ones to the disaster took legal action against the USIA, and the company soon found itself facing 125 lawsuits. Three thousand witnesses and close to 6 years later, auditor Colonel Hugh Ogden would dismiss the USIA’s claims of anarchist sabotage and affirm that the lack of proper safety conditions was the primary cause. The USIA ended up owing the families of each victim around $7,000.

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