No, I’m not making this up. The Molasses Flood of 1919 is a real, well-documented event. It seems funny on the surface, but it was one of those horrifying, traumatic events with which Bostonians are, unfortunately, well acquainted.
It all began with a huge tank for storing molasses, sort of like the big water tanks and grain silos with which we are more familiar. Owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, the tank on Commercial Street was 58 feet high and more than 90 feet in diameter, holding 2,300,000 gallons of molasses.
I’m not crazy about molasses, and it would take me quite a while to use up a gallon. But two million gallons? The distillery planned to use it in manufacturing rum.
|Taken January 16, 1919, the day after the disaster. The molasses tank was located at about the center of the photo.|
The unseasonably warm weather on January 15 changed the plans of everyone in Boston. The owners later claimed the explosion was caused by sabotage, but that story didn’t hold up. The court later ruled that the tank was overfilled and not adequately reinforced—some people said it was poorly constructed in the first place and had been leaking molasses for some time.
What is known for sure is that the temperature had hovered near zero, but on that day, it rose into the mid-forties. Some people think the warm air caused the molasses to start fermenting and expand. Whatever the cause, about 12:40 in the afternoon, the giant tank exploded, sending pieces of the metal flying in all directions and releasing a surge of molasses that formed a wave, reported from eight to fifteen feet high. The wall of molasses rushed down the streets at 35 miles an hour. People couldn’t outrun it. Huge pieces of the tank hit buildings. One large piece landed in a park 200 feet away. Another hit a railroad piling, taking out a piece of an elevated train line.
|Some of the rubble from the tank. The molasses was to be shipped to a distillery in Cambridge.|
People hurried to the area to try to help. Cadets came from the USS Nantucket, a training ship docked nearby. Policemen, firemen, Red cross workers, army and navy personnel, and other volunteers came and found molasses still two to three feet deep in some places. If they tried to walk in it, they got stuck, or it sucked their boots off.
|Taken January 15 as rescue workers arrived.|
They found it hard to get near the scene.
The initial clean-up lasted several days with thousands of people at work, but the city wasn’t molasses-free for a long time. The city had its fire boat spray streams of water on the debris. Salt water was sprayed on the streets and houses to get the molasses off. Cellars for blocks around were filled with molasses and had to be pumped, which took months. The harbor was said to look black with molasses well into the summer. When people walked in the area, their shoes stuck to the cobblestones. And the smell lingered. They say for years you could smell it on a hot day.
In memory of the Great Molasses Flood, today I’m doing a surprise giveaway of my novel The Crimson Cipher, in which you’ll learn about some other strange but true events that took place a few years earlier, in 1915 (paper or e-book). Comment below to enter.
Susan Page Davis is the author of more than forty published novels. A history major, she’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. She’s a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: www.susanpagedavis.com .