The 1919 Boston Molasses Flood: The forgotten tragedy too bizarre for the history books
2013-06-24 0:00

By John Platt | Mother Nature Network

A 30-foot wave of molasses claimed the lives of 21 people and injured 150 more.

The 21 people who died in Boston on Jan. 15, 1919, had little warning of the events that were about to occur. According to an article published the next day in The New York Times (pdf), the only sound before the disaster was "a dull, muffled roar." That was the noise made by the explosion of a massive tank of molasses owned by the Purity Distilling Company. Moments later, more than 2 million gallons of hot, thick, sticky molasses flooded the surrounding streets, destroying buildings, overturning wagons and trucks, and even knocking an elevated train off its tracks. Witnesses say the wave of molasses reached as high as 30 feet tall and it traveled as fast as 35 miles per hour.

For the people in the surrounding streets and buildings, there was no escape. Twenty-one people died, including three firemen who were killed when their nearby firehouse collapsed. Another 150 people were injured, and several horses were also killed. Police, a local Army battalion, the Red Cross and even the Navy arrived to help the survivors, but rescuers were hampered by the sticky goo that filled the streets. It took four days to find all of the victims, and another two weeks to clean up the molasses mess. Even today, nearly a century later, some people say the neighborhood still smells like molasses on hot summer days.

This terrible event has come to be known as the Great Boston Molasses Disaster, one of the most bizarre and least talked about tragedies in U.S. history. As Stephen Puleo writes in his excellent book, "Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919," its possible that the history books rarely take notice of the tragedy because no one "prominent" died that day. "The survivors did not go on to become famous," Puleo writes. "They were mostly immigrants and city workers who returned to their workaday lives, recovered from injuries, and provided for their families."


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