The Great Molasses Flood: Sabotage or Industrial Accident?

By | August 2, 2018

test article image
BOSTON - JANUARY 1: A molasses tank collapsed and caused widespread damage in Boston's North End in January 1919. (Photo by The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

An unfathomable tragedy filled the streets of Boston with a tsunami of molasses…yes, molasses!...on a balmy January day in 1919. The 2.3 million tons of the sticky, brown molasses moved surprisingly fast, destroying several buildings, ripping an elevated train from its tracks, and killing 21 people and multiple horses. What became known as the Great Molasses Flood occurred when a giant holding tank at the Purity Distilling Company, which had just been filled with molasses, burst apart. The owners of the Purity Distilling Company claimed that a bomb placed by “evilly disposed persons” was responsible for the flood. Could it have been an act of foreign terrorism or a structural failure?

test article image

A Loud Noise and a Wall of Brown

Temperatures were especially warm for January…over 40-degrees. People were out and about, enjoying day. Just after lunch time, at about 12:40 in the afternoon, a sudden, loud, metallic sound rang out and the ground shook. The people of Boston had little time to ponder the strange noise; a 15-foot tall wall of brown, bubbling molasses barreled down on the city at 35-miles per hour. People and horses were swallowed up by the brown wall. The force of the molasses crumpled several buildings and pushed others off their foundations. Electrical poles snapped, as did the steel supports of the nearby elevated train platform. The train was upended from the tracks.

In the molasses tsunami’s wake was a half a mile of destruction…splintered houses, dead bodies, injured horses, and buried carriages. The Boston Post printed an eye-witness report of the time saying that, amid the waist-deep sludge, he could see living creatures struggling to free themselves from the thick, brown muck, but that it was impossible to tell if they were humans, dogs, or horses.