It doesn’t seem possible that the words “molasses” and “disaster” could coexist in the same sentence! But on January 15, 1919, the city of Boston was rocked by an explosion that would send 2.3 million gallons of thick, sticky molasses coursing through the streets of Boston’s North End in a wave up to 15 feet high (some estimate it as up to 30 feet high, with The Boston Post reporting it as 50 feet high) and traveling at a speed of 35 mph, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds.
Houses were swept from their foundations and buildings destroyed. Half-inch steel plates from the huge molasses tank were propelled in all directions, one of them slicing through the steel girders of an elevated train track, collapsing the ell just moments after a train had passed.
From the Boston Public Library (http://bpl.org):
The Boston Molasses Disaster, also known as the Great Molasses Flood, [and also known as "The Boston Molassacre"!] occurred on January 15, 1919, in Boston’s North End. The disaster occurred on an unusually warm day at the Purity Distilling Company when a large storage tank containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst. The collapse unleashed an immense wave of molasses fifteen feet high, moving at 35 miles an hour. Nearby buildings were swept off their foundations and several North End blocks were flooded to a depth of two to three feet. Nearly 150 people were injured and 21 people and several horses were killed in the disaster.
It took over 87,000 man hours to remove the molasses from the streets, theaters, businesses, automobiles, and homes. Boston Harbor was still brown with molasses until summer. Local residents brought a class-action lawsuit, one of the first held in Massachusetts, against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA), which had bought Purity Distilling in 1917. USIA ultimately paid out $600,000 ($7 million in today’s money) in out-of-court settlements. The event has entered local folklore, and some residents claim that on hot summer days, the scent of molasses still hangs in the air.
I can’t say that I’ve ever smelled the scent of molasses in the air in the streets of Boston, but I have been told by present-day North Enders that you can still smell molasses on hot summer days in the basements of their houses.
For fellow genealogists who may be researching ancestors from Boston, a full list of the 21 killed in the Great Molasses Disaster follows:
|Patrick Breen||44||Laborer (North End Paving Yard)|
|John Callahan||43||Paver (North End Paving Yard)|
|William Duffy||58||Laborer (North End Paving Yard)|
|James H. Kinneally||Unknown||Laborer (North End Paving Yard)|
|George Layhe||38||Firefighter (Engine 31)|
|James McMullen||46||Foreman, Bay State Express|
|John M. Seiberlich||69||Blacksmith (North End Paving Yard)|
For further reading: