Molasses is delicious, a sweet treat to put on fresh biscuits or use to make gingerbread. It can also be used to make rum, which anyone who has been on a cruise can tell you is delicious. However, for a North Boston neighborhood in 1919 it was the source of one of the strangest disasters in American history.
In 1915, the Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, built a gigantic tank for molasses in the Boston’s North End. The steel tank was 50 feet tall, 90 feet across, and capable of holding 2.5 million gallons of molasses. On January 15, 1919 it was an abnormally warm day. The temperatures rose to 40 degrees Fahrenheit from the previous day’s freezing temperatures. The large tank was full of a delivery of Puerto Rican molasses and ready to be processed. However, just after noon witnesses heard sounds like gunfire. The tank’s rivets were popping out and the steel seems tore like paper. The molasses poured out of the ripped tank and formed a wave heading down Commercial Street. The wave was 5 ft-high, 160 ft-wide wave that was moving at a clip of 35 mph.
This gave it the power to rip buildings off their foundations, snap steel support girders from an elevated train rail and destroy homes. Electrical poles snapped and the wires fell into the molasses hissing and popping. Ten year old Pasquale Iantosca was killed when a railroad car was thrown into him. Walter Merrithew was pinned against the wall of a railroad freight shed three feet off the ground. He watched horses drown in the sticky flood. People were swept along in the wave and a boat was smashed through a wooden fence. Rescue attempts were hampered by the molasses as medical personnel and police could not get through the viscous goo. By the time the wave subsided, 21 people were dead, 150 people were injured. According to the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, the damage totaled 100 million dollars in today’s money.
Clean up was also difficult as the molasses hardened as it dried. The firefighters could not hose it off the building with fresh water. It was stuck. They eventually figured out that salt water would strip it off and let it flow into the gutters. However, with all the foot traffic the molasses quickly made its way across the city on the feet of workers and gawkers. All in all, it took 80,000 man-hours to clean up the mess.
Soon after, the fingers began pointing. How could such a thing have happened? The United States Industrial Alcohol Company quickly said it was anarchist, but that was the favorite scapegoat of everyone in the early 20th century. It was theorized that the molasses had fermented in the tank and that caused the explosion. Subsequent investigations found that the manufacture of the steel tank was to blame. The steel tank had been made in a hurry and corners had been cut in its construction. The walls were too thin and were made of a steel to brittle to withstand the volume. The person overseeing the construction of the tank had no experience with engineering or construction. The company basically threw up a huge tank and crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.
At least 125 lawsuits came from the tragedy brought by working families who had lost properties and loved ones. It took Colonel Hugh Ogden nearly six years to hear testimony from 3,000 witnesses. Once he gave his decision, he nixed the companies theory that it was anarchists and ruled it was a very low “factor of safety” in the construction of the tank. Each family in the lawsuit was paid $7,000 by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company.
The disaster drew attention to the lack of inspections against shoddy construction and new laws were passed in its wake. However, the neighborhood bore the marks of the disaster for years. For decades, residents said on a hot summer day they could smell the hot sticky scent of molasses.
Sources available on request