Killer Molasses Flood of 1919

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by Steven Doyle

Boston has been the scene for many historic events including a particular Tea Party and Paul Revere’s famous ride. It is also the subject of the pop group The Standell’s tune Dirty Water which is a send up to the Charles River. But nothing is more heinous and at once more forgotten than the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.

It was a balmy January afternoon with temperatures reaching into the high 40’s, which for Boston this would be a moment of relief. Pleasant conversations about the weather were soon halted as a giant flood of molasses swept through the streets with waves reaching up to 35 mph.

The tragic event had its casualties and the evidence is rumored to still remain on the site of the event in Boston’s North End and the base of Copp’s Hill where locals claim they can smell the pungent molasses on a warm day.

Imagine, if you will, a rustic tank made of cast iron that is 58 feet high and 90 feet wide, riveted and stuck into concrete. Altogether this tank held just over 2 million gallons of gooey molasses which is the viscous by-product of processing sugar for use in producing yeast, rum and delicious cookies. Although the cause for the explosion is not exactly known today, it is thought to be shoddy workmanship of the vessel itself and the courts eventually ruled as such in a trial that lasted months and was met with great controversy involving more attorneys than could fill the courthouse.

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The damage of the molasses flood might be fodder of a flapper era comedy, but 21 people died that day and over 150 were injured. Buildings collapsed as shrapnel smashed into structures, even crashing into a rail trestle and destroying the track as a moving locomotive approached. The train’s engineer was cautious and stopped the train from flying off the tracks just in time.

At the Public Works Department five men eating their noonday meal were smothered by boiling sludge that engulfed them.

Others were not so lucky. The explosion threw people and horses into the air causing a vacuum that sucked them back towards ground zero. Waves of molasses rushed the streets at heights of 8 to 15 feet and a force of 2 tons per square feet.

Clean up for the explosion lasted for months with even more complications due to the methods of removing the waste.

 

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