Last week when I was writing about the London Beer Flood, I learned of the most bizarre disaster to occur in US history.
On January 15, 1919, a storage tank along Boston’s waterfront burst, sending a 15 foot high, 160 foot wide wave of molasses rolling through the streets of Boston at a speedy (for molasses) 35 miles per hour. The wave flattened buildings, knocked rails off of a nearby elevated railway, nearly knocked a train car off it’s track, and crushed or drown people, horses and other animals under it’s horrifying, sticky mass.
Molasses (or Treacle, if you happen to be British) is a byproduct from making sugar from sugarcane and sugar beets. It is what makes brown sugar brown. It’s a syrup, as thick as honey and darker than motor oil. In addition to cooking, molasses may be fermented to make ethanol for alcohol or munitions.
These two products were in high demand in the previous years. Munitions for World War I, and alcohol in the lead up to prohibition.
A Rush Job
Just three years prior, Purity Distilling Company had the tank constructed to deal with the massive amounts of molasses moving through their distillery.
At five stories (50 ft. High) and 90 feet in diameter, constructed of seven riveted vertical rows of steel plates that overlapped horizontally, the tank dominated the neighborhood.
The tank was completed just three days ahead of an expected shipment of molasses, leaving no time for the construction company to fill it with water to test for structural weaknesses.
Neighborhood residents noticed problems with the tank as soon as distillery employees filled it with Molasses. The tank’s overlapping steel plates leaked profusely.
Children playing nearby would scrape the leaks with sticks to make molasses suckers. Adults would collect the leaking molasses in jars to take home.
More ominously, some employees noticed rumbling sounds from within the tank. The distillery had the tank painted brown to hide the leaking.
The Dam (actually the tank) Breaks
At 12:30 pm on January 15th the tank ruptured, spilling 2.3 million gallons of Molasses (26 million pounds) into the streets.
The wave flattened the entire Boston Waterfront area, including the offices of the distillery and a three story fire house nearby.
116 sailors of the USS Nantucket, which was docked nearby, rushed to the rescue.
By the time doctors arrived, they described treating finding victims who looked like they had been covered in a heavy oil slick. Some victims couldn’t even be seen through the thick, syrupy glaze. The final victim wasn’t even discovered for four months.
In the city stables, police had to shoot trapped , injured and struggling horses.
Volunteers set up a makeshift hospital to remove syrup from noses and mouths, so that survivors could breathe, as well as eyes, and ears.
The molasses clung to anything it touched, including the clothes, hands and hair of rescue workers.
Gawkers tracked the molasses back through the rest of the city, where it stuck in the streets, on handrails, doorknobs, public phones and the seats of public transportation.
Removing the funk took an estimated 87,000 man hours.
Firemen pumped water from the harbor through fire hoses to spray away the gunk. Others used chisels, saws and brooms. Although the accident happened in January, the water in Boston Harbor ran brown into Summer.
Investigations into the accident pointed to the tank. Investigators said it was too thin and had too few rivets to contain so much molasses.
Additionally, the temperature on the morning of the accident rose from 2 degrees Farenheit to 41 degrees, which could have caused the Molasses to ferment and put further stress on the tank.
By August of the following year, 119 lawsuits had been filed against Purity’s parent Company, United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA). The suits were all consolidated into one lawsuit which took three years to settle. It remains one of the longest, most expensive suits in Massachusetts’s history.
The USIA settled out of court, and as a result, most of America today requires that building projects must be signed off on by an architect and an engineer. Plans must also be filed with most city building departments.
Today the site of the tank is now a playground. The events have passed into folklore. Some Boston residents swear that they can still smell molasses on hot days.