Jan 20, 2014
It was an unseasonably warm day in Boston back on January 15, 1919. The temperature had risen from a frosty 2 degrees the night before to over 40 degrees. In the North End, Bostonians merrily went on with their business – blissfully unaware of the grumblings and groaning coming from the Purity Distilling Company.
The Purity Distilling Company was located on Commercial Street and stored 2.3 million gallons of molasses in its massive six-story tank. Molasses has been a pretty big deal in American history and the history of the Atlantic world. Not only is molasses used as a sweetener, but it’s also used to make rum and certain types of alcohol-based explosives & munitions. The molasses in the tank was waiting to be transferred to a plant that would process it into one of these finished products.
Shortly after noon, passersby began to notice a loud, low rumbling sound followed by the sound ‘like a machine gun going off’ according to witnesses, as the rivets of the 58-foot high cast iron tank began to pop out. The ground quaked as if one of the elevated trains above were passing by. With a terrifying whine, the metal began to tear – the tank had ruptured.
A gargantuan tsunami of molasses swept across a two-block radius, gushing through at up to 35 miles per hour with waves up to 15 feet high flooding the streets. Nearby buildings were flattened and parts of the overhead elevated train rail collapsed. The molasses settled and several blocks were flooded with standing molasses between two and three feet deep.
According to the Boston Globe:
Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage ... Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was ... 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.
116 cadets of the training ship USS Nantucket, which was docked at the pier across the street, rushed to the scene to pull out survivors. They were soon joined by the local police and Red Cross. At the end of the disaster, 21 people had died and over 150 had been injured – not counting the horses that were stuck in the muck and had to be euthanized.
It took the next two weeks to scrub all the molasses from the buildings, cobblestone streets, and cars.
The United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which owned Purity Distilling, had tried to claim that its tank had been sabotaged by anarchists. The courts found that this wasn’t the case, though. They discovered that the builder had done a slipshod job in constructing the tank. In fact, the tank leaked so badly that people living nearby would bring buckets to collect the ‘weeping molasses.’
Another probable cause was that, with the sudden rise in temperature, the fermentation process increased rapidly and the Carbon Dioxide buildup raised the internal pressure beyond the tank’s capability to hold.
Regardless, the company had to pay out $600,000 in settlements and $7,000 per victim to the family members of the victims.
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