Massachusetts

The Great Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919

Panorama of the molasses disaster. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

On Jan. 15, 1919, an enormous molasses storage tank burst in Boston’s North End, and a 25-foot-high wave of molasses surged through the streets at 35 miles per hour.

The molasses disaster killed 21 people, including 17 workers, and injured 150. Witnesses said the rivets popping out of the tank sounded like machine gun fire.

The Boston elevated twisted into new shapes after the molasses disaster. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The Boston elevated twisted into new shapes after the molasses disaster. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The tank, 50 feet high and 90 feet in diameter, contained 2.3 million gallons of molasses originally destined for use in a  munitions plant. The deadly ooze damaged the Boston Elevated Railway on Atlantic Avenue. It then tipped over a rail car and knocked buildings off their foundations. The molasses surge picked up a truck and threw it into Boston Harbor.

Inside the Boston and Worcester freight terminal, the river of molasses poured through the doors and windows. It killed workers like trapped animals.

Outside, the wall of goo trapped some unlucky victims, hurled some into the air, flung some against freight cars and smothered still others.

Wreckage under the elevated where many express trucks parked, molasses disaster. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Wreckage under the elevated where many express trucks parked, molasses disaster. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The molasses was waist deep in the streets, and covered struggling forms trying to escape the sticky mass. It was hard to tell if they were men, women, children or horses. The more they struggled, the more ensnared they became.

Over a hundred cadets from the training ship USS Nantucket, docked nearby, ran to the scene to rescue victims and keep onlookers away from danger. The police and Red Cross arrived and set up a makeshift hospital in a nearby building. Rescuers spent the next four days searching for victims.

Section of tank after molasses disaster explosion. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Section of tank after molasses disaster explosion. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

News of the Molasses Disaster

The Boston Evening Globe reported the boiling sludge buried scores of people inside ruined buildings, killing some and badly injuring others. 

Fragments of the great tank were thrown into the air, buildings in the neighborhood began to crumple up as though the underpinnings had been pulled away from under them...

The explosion came without the slightest warning. The workmen were at their noontime meal, some eating in the building or just outside, and many of the men in the Department of Public Works Buildings and stables, which are close by, and where many were injured badly, were away at lunch.

The Globe reported no one had a chance to escape once they hear the low, rumbling sound. Buildings seemed to crinkle as though made of pasteboard.

In the aftermath, local residents filed a class-action suit against the company, Purity Distilling Company. Purity claimed anarchists blew up the tank, but investigators found it was poorly constructed and never tested for safety. When filled, it leaked molasses, and the company painted it brown to hide the leaks.

Cutting the tank with acetylene torch 3 days after the disaster. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Cutting the tank with acetylene torch 3 days after the molasses disaster. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

What Caused It?

Nearly 100 years later, a new study found the cause of the molasses disaster to be steel too thin and brittle to withstand the pressure of 2.3 million gallons of molasses. Ronald Mayville, a structural and metallurgical engineer, wrote in Civil and Structural Engineer Magazine that the steel was 50 percent too thin. Engineers should have known that in 1919, he wrote.

What they didn't know was that the steel didn't contain enough manganese, which made it more likely to crack. The Titanic also used the same kind of steel.

For many years, North End residents said they smelled molasses on hot summer days.

And in 2016, Harvard University scientists concluded the molasses disaster would have killed fewer people had it happened in the summer. They figured the winter air cooled and thickened the goo, making it harder to rescue victims.

This story about the Boston molasses disaster was updated in 2018. 

 

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Tara May Turcogeorge

    Tara May Turcogeorge

    January 15, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    I remember my grandfather telling me about this- for a long time I thought it was a myth…especially that that many people were killed

  2. Susan Pollard Spellman

    Susan Pollard Spellman

    January 15, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    The Maine folk group, Schooner Fare, sing a great song about the Molasses disaster: It’s called simply “Molasses”, words and music by Tom Rowe. Check out the words here: http://www.outergreen.com/albums/8885.html (bottom of the page). It’s one of my favorites!

  3. Luhvin Snow

    Luhvin Snow

    January 15, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    I thought this was a joke at first. I thought it was too cold in January for molasses to flow. You know the old saying…

  4. Karla Mancini Young

    Karla Mancini Young

    January 15, 2014 at 11:29 pm

    When my kids were in the 3rd grade, they had a historical fiction story on this. The story was this one, but the people were not real.

  5. Layne Armstrong

    Layne Armstrong

    January 16, 2014 at 12:09 am

    Obviously so much history in Boston, but I’ve always loved this story. Fun Boston facts.

  6. Martha Beale

    Martha Beale

    January 16, 2014 at 12:11 am

    wow.. shared.

  7. Sandra Mcgee Tansey

    Sandra Mcgee Tansey

    January 16, 2014 at 12:37 am

    For years they claimed to smell the molasses on hot humid days.

  8. Thomas Graham

    Thomas Graham

    January 16, 2014 at 12:52 am

    People STILL make that claim. Amazing piece of history.

  9. Alison Herman Schooley

    Alison Herman Schooley

    January 16, 2014 at 1:05 am

    Wow, I had never heard of this before.

  10. Krista Ahrens

    Krista Ahrens

    January 16, 2014 at 1:17 am

    Why have I never heard of this?

  11. Sue Saykaly-Rozmus

    Sue Saykaly-Rozmus

    January 16, 2014 at 5:28 am

    I have heard about this all my life. Can not even imagine what that must have looked like.

  12. Shelly Massicotte Braman

    Shelly Massicotte Braman

    January 16, 2014 at 10:00 am

    21 people killed by molasses? :-/

  13. Gail Stewart

    Gail Stewart

    January 16, 2014 at 10:32 am

    And they say even today if it is extremely hot in Boston you can still smell it!

  14. Margaret Corbett

    Margaret Corbett

    January 16, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Interesting. Sad! Glad I was not there

  15. Sharon Dunn

    Sharon Dunn

    January 16, 2014 at 11:02 am

    A sticky situation.

  16. BellaDonna Henry

    BellaDonna Henry

    January 16, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Thank you for sharing,didn’t know about it.

  17. Lynn Coolen

    Lynn Coolen

    January 15, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    That is such a scary story

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