Beautiful Disaster: The Great Boston Molasses Tragedy

Boston Post, January 16, 1919 Headline - Huge molasses tank explodes in North End, 11 dead, 50 hurt via Boston Public Library

Just before one o’clock on an unseasonably warm winter’s day in 1919, a wave of molasses fifteen feet high and moving at thirty-five miles per hour swept through the streets of Boston’s North End, tearing buildings from their foundations, pulverizing concrete, and trapping hundreds in a sweet, viscous slop that ultimately killed 21 people, injuring 150 more.

Known as the Boston Molasses Disaster, the tragedy occurred on January 15, 1919, when a giant 50-foot-tall iron holding tank at the Purity Distilling Co suddenly ruptured and exploded, propelling 2.3 million gallons of deadly treacle down Commercial Street.  Ferris Jabr, writing for Scientific American, notes that a quirk of Newtonian physics made the wave of molasses “even more devastating than a typical tsunami,” as it flooded more than two city blocks to a depth of several feet, tore apart an elevated train platform, and crushed buildings, cars, and people in its path.

The impact of the disaster included more than 40 man years of labor to remove the molasses from the streets, and lawsuits resulting in landmark settlements with the victims and new industrial manufacturing inspection laws still on the books today. It may also make you look at that little bottle in the cupboard with a new sense of respect (and, perhaps, apprehension) as you plan your holiday baking, kittens.


For more photos, visit the archives at the Boston Globe and Boston Public Library. To explore the science behind the devastation, read The Science of the Great Molasses Flood in Scientific American.

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10 thoughts on “Beautiful Disaster: The Great Boston Molasses Tragedy

  1. Pingback: Blue Mustang: The Demon Horse of Denver International Airport | The Year of Halloween

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