Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919: How One of America’s Strangest Tragedies Happened

It fits per­fect­ly into ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can lore, this all-too-real dis­as­ter: on Jan­u­ary 15, 1919, a fif­teen-foot wall of molasses rushed through Boston’s North End, killing 21, injur­ing 150, doing $100 mil­lion in today’s dol­lars worth of dam­age, and requir­ing 80,000 man-hours to clean up. Those fig­ures come from a post on the sub­ject at Men­tal Floss, which inves­ti­gates what loosed the Great Molasses Flood in the first place. The Unit­ed States Indus­tri­al Alco­hol Com­pa­ny, own­ers of the brown, sticky sub­stance in ques­tion and the explod­ing tank that con­tained it, pinned it on bomb-chuck­ers, claim­ing that, “since its alco­hol was an ingre­di­ent in gov­ern­ment muni­tions, anar­chists must have sab­o­taged the tank.” Inves­ti­ga­tions lat­er revealed the cause as none oth­er than seat-of-the-pants cap­i­tal­is­tic hubris, anoth­er stand­by of ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca.


The tank’s “absurd­ly shod­dy con­struc­tion work,” led by a man who “could­n’t even read a blue­print,” came down to this: they “threw up a gigan­tic tank as quick­ly and cheap­ly as pos­si­ble, skimped on inspec­tions and safe­ty tests, and hoped for the best.” You can learn more about what hap­pened in the video above, a drama­ti­za­tion of the events lead­ing up to the Great Molasses Flood from the pilot episode of The Folk­lorist


The con­tem­po­rary images above and below come from the Boston Pub­lic Library’s Flickr set. For the most defin­i­tive study of this gooey calami­ty, you’ll want to seek out Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo, who speaks in some detail about the event and its after­math in this Real His­to­ry video. All these well-doc­u­ment­ed facts aside, leg­end has it that, on a par­tic­u­lar­ly hot day on Com­mer­cial Street, you can still smell the stuff.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Voltaire & the Lis­bon Earth­quake of 1755

The Titan­ic: Rare Footage Before Dis­as­ter Strikes

How the Titan­ic Sank: James Cameron’s New CGI Ani­ma­tion

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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