January 15th – The Great Molasses Disaster of Boston

Front page from the Boston Globe, the day after the Great Molasses Flood

Front page from the Boston Globe, the day after the Great Molasses Flood

On this day in 1919, a large molasses storage tank burst, sending a wave of molasses flowing down the streets of the North End of Boston. Known as the ‘Great Molasses Flood’ or the ‘Great Boston Molasses Tragedy’, while seemingly comical, this disaster resulted in the deaths of 21 and injured 150.

The Boston Molasses Tragedy occurred at the Purity Distilling Company facility on 529 Commercial Street. The tank holding the molasses was 15 metres tall and 27 metres in diameter, containing almost 2300000 gallons of molasses on the day of the spill. Around 12:30 pm, the tank collapsed, unleashing molasses on the city of Boston. In addition to the injuries and fatalities, much property was destroyed by the molasses, with many city blocks flooded in molasses up to a metre high. The amount of molasses spilled was so great that many of the dead were so glazed over and covered in molasses that they were extremely difficult to identify.

Multiple theories have been offered as to what caused the storage tank to collapse, including:

  1. Fermentation within the tank increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the tank, increasing the internal pressure of the tank.
  2. A sudden rise in the temperature in Boston from the day before (from -17° to 5°C) also contributed to a rise in the internal pressure of the tank.
  3. A fatigue crack at the base of the tank.
  4. Basic safety tests were neglected. When the tank was filled with water and found to be leaky prior to the disaster, the company owners painted the tank brown to help hide the leaking molasses from showing through.

Ultimately, it took the city of Boston almost two weeks to clean up from the aftermath of the Great Molasses Flood. Boston Harbour remained brown in colour from the molasses until the summer. The Purity Distilling Company was sued in a class-action lawsuit, and through out-of-court settlements, the company paid out almost $600000 to victims of the flood (almost $12 million today). The Purity Distilling Company decided to not rebuild the storage tank following the flood, and today the site of the Great Molasses Flood of Boston is a public baseball field. Local folklore suggests that on hot summer days in Boston today, you can still smell a sweet odour in the air, all coming from the molasses that flooded the streets of Boston on January 15th, 1919.

Here are some links on the Great Molasses Disaster of Boston if you would like to explore further:

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