Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 13, 2014

Reliving the odd horror of Boston's Molasses Flood

Bill Dalton
The Andover Townsman

---- — The first time I heard the term “Molasses Flood” I thought it was a joke. It was anything but.

On Jan. 15, 1919 — 85 years ago this year — a 50-foot-high, metal tank containing molasses collapsed on Commercial Street on the outskirts of Boston’s North End, sending a gooey flood, 15 feet high and 150 feet wide, a distance of two blocks.

Everything in its path was destroyed, including the lives of 21 people; another 150 were injured and the damage to property was $100 million in today’s money.

The tank contained 2.3 million gallons of molasses, weighing 26 million pounds; it was the biggest above-ground tank in Boston’s history to that time.

Then, as now, the North End was a heavily populated, heavily trafficked area, especially on Commercial Street, which led to a major wharf. Witnesses later said there was a loud rumbling sound followed by something that sounded like a machine gun, probably the sound of rivets popping. Immediately after those sounds, the tank fell apart with such violence that the ground shook hundreds of yards away.

Buildings were engulfed, swept off their foundations and crushed. Firemen in the local firehouse, workers at the public works department and small children playing outside drowned or were crushed by the molasses.

Horses on the streets, common despite heavy automobile and truck traffic, survived longer in the molasses because of their strength, but all near the tank were killed.

The day after the tragedy, The Boston Post stated, “The sight that greeted the first of the rescuers on the scene is almost indescribable in words. Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. ... 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 definitive book on the subject is Stephen Puleo’s “Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919,” (Beacon Press, 2003, 2004). Puleo describes the reaction inside the fire station, “... a group of firefighters was playing cards ... when they heard a tremendous crash. It was like roaring surf, one of them said later. Like a runaway, two-horse team smashing through a fence, said another. A third firefighter jumped up from his chair to look out a window — ‘Oh my God!’ he shouted to the other men, `Run!’”

It’s hard to imagine the horror of drowning in molasses. No matter how hard you fight or how strong you are, once you are covered with the pervasive stickiness there is little chance of surviving. You would exhaust yourself within seconds. It is not only an odd way to die, it is terrifying.

The tank’s owner was U.S. Industrial Alcohol, and it blamed anarchists for the tragedy. Their theory made sense because the corporation had its New York facilities bombed by anarchists. It was during the Great War, and U.S. Industrial Alcohol converted molasses into alcohol that was used to make munitions.

Additionally, there had been numerous explosions in the Boston area in the past year, but there was not enough evidence linking anarchists to the tank collapse. After protracted litigation, the owners were found liable for monetary damages to the victims’ families.

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Bill Dalton writes an occasional column for the Andover Townsman. His email address is BillDalton@AndoverTownie.com.