Interesting US History

The Great Molasses Flood in Boston 1919


More than a century ago, Boston experienced a man-made disaster like no other. Bostonians heard rumbles and crashes in the distance, not unlike the sound of a bursting dam. Boston residents had no idea that more than 100 people would perish from an oncoming tsunami.

With a deafening bang, 2.3 million gallons of sticky, viscous molasses would come pouring into the streets. The tsunami reached heights of over 25 feet while traveling at a surprising 35 miles per hour. Everybody on the streets and in their homes found themselves suddenly waist-deep in the sticky substance. This incident would come to be known as the Boston Toffee Apple Tsunami.

The molasses began tearing down structures, sending trains careening off of their rails. Buildings were torn apart at their foundations while dozens of vehicles flowed effortlessly across the Boston streets. In the end, roughly 150 people fell victim to the tsunami with hundreds injured or missing. Most of those that lost their lives in the molasses flood were workers stationed nearby the exploding tank.

Thanks to the cool January air, the molasses became even sticker and viscous than usual. This rendered people and animals immobile and unable to call for help. With the flood glowing taller by the minute, children as young as ten became trapped and suffocated before help could arrive.

The exploding tank was a result of shoddy construction and insufficient testing. The Purity Distilling Company had prepared several full tanks of fermenting molasses in order to get more of its rum onto shelves before Prohibition came into effect.

As the molasses fermented, a buildup of carbon dioxide was pushing against the inner walls of the tanks. The tank was also known for leaking, and consumers in the area would often fill jugs of spilled molasses for personal consumption. When people raised concerns about the leaks, the Purity Distilling Company simply painted the tanks the same color as molasses in order to mask the cracks without investing in a new tank. Three days before disaster struck, the company had refilled the tanks to max capacity, further straining the walls and contributing to excess pressure buildup.

In an attempt to avoid responsibility for failed testing, poor construction, and irresponsible business practices, the Purity Distilling Company pointed the finger of blame at terrorists. This did not convince anyone, and the company had to pay $600,000 in settlements. The company’s negligence forced Massachusetts lawmakers to ensure engineers inspect and test all big construction plans in the future.

Cleanup of the molasses spill took weeks to complete. Cool temperatures made it increasingly more challenging to remove from roads and buildings. And as temperatures increased, the molasses released a nose-wrinkling stench mixed with both building parts and the smell of death.