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Boston Molasses disaster 1919

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Boston Molasses disaster 1919

Comments for: Boston Molasses disaster 1919
woberto Report This Comment
Date: August 11, 2007 01:31AM

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more innocuous substance in your kitchen than molasses. Who would ever suspect that this thick, dark, and homey sweetener could also be a terrifying, fast-moving killer?

Newspaper accounts report that January 15, 1919 - the day of the Great Molasses Flood of Boston, Massachusetts - began like any other winter day in that city, except for one thing. The weather was unusually warm, reaching 40°F by midmorning. This was probably a welcome event for Bostonians, who had suffered through rigid 2°F temperatures the day before. But little did anyone guess what havoc this extreme temperature swing would soon wreak.

The sudden rise in temperature compromised the structural integrity of a 50-foot-tall steel tank filled with 2,320,000 gallons of molasses. Owned and maintained by the U.S. Alcohol Company, the tank had been filled to capacity in order to make as much hooch as possible before the alcohol prohibition law kicked in. Just after noon on the 15th, the lunchtime crowd in the vicinity of the tank (located on the waterfront in Boston’s densely populated North End) heard a thunderous explosion, immediately followed by what must have been the weirdest thing they had ever seen in their lives: a 25-foot-high wall of syrup washing toward them through the streets at 30 miles per hour. For 21 of these unfortunate witnesses, it would be the last thing they would ever see. Some were engulfed and smothered in the dark goo like pre-historic insect trapped in amber. Others were killed when the molasses ripped buildings from their foundations, or simply reduced them to rubble. Another 150 people were injured.

The New York Times of January 16, 1919, reported that a section of the tank wall fell on a nearby firehouse, crushing the building and three firemen inside. Freight cars were smashed; a warehouse yard was leveled. Horses became hopelessly mired in the goo and were shot. Rescue teams had a difficult time slogging through the thick syrup, which rose several feet high throughout the neighborhood.

Because the molasses stuck to everything it touched, the cleanup took several years and millions of dollars. Even so, residents reported that molasses would seep up from the ground on hot days as many as 30 years after the flood. And to this day, sharp-nosed Bostonians swear that they can smell the stuff when the temperature rises.