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Boston molasses disaster

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The Boston Molasses Disaster (also known as the Great Molasses Flood or The Great Boston Molasses Tragedy) occurred on January 15, 1919, in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. A large molasses (treacle) tank burst and a wave of molasses ran through the streets at an estimated 35 MPH (60 km/h), killing twenty-one and injuring 150 others. The event has entered local folklore, and residents claim that the area still sometimes smells of molasses.

Sequence of eventsEdit

The disaster occurred at the Purity Distilling Company facility on January 15, 1919, one day before the Eighteenth Amendment enabling Prohibition was ratified. At the time, molasses was the standard sweetener across North America (now supplanted by high fructose corn syrup). Molasses was also fermented (producing ethyl alcohol) for use in making liquor and as a key component in the manufacture of munitions. The stored molasses was awaiting transfer to the Purity plant situated between Willow Street and what is now named Evereteze Way in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At 529 Commercial Street, a huge molasses tank (50 ft (15 m) tall, 240 ft (70 m) around and containing as much as 2.5 million US gallons (9,500 m³ or 9,500,000 liters) collapsed. The collapse unleashed an immense wave of molasses between 8 and 15 ft (2.5 to 4.5 m) high, moving at 35 mph (60 km/h) and exerting a pressure of 2 ton/ft² (200 kPa). The molasses wave was of sufficient force to break the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway's Atlantic Avenue Elevated structure and lift a train off the tracks. Several nearby buildings were also destroyed, and several blocks were flooded to a depth of 2 to 3 feet. Twenty-one people were killed and 150 injured as the molasses crushed and asphyxiated many of the victims to death. Rescuers found it difficult to make their way through the syrup to help the victims.

It took over six months to remove the molasses from the cobblestone streets, theaters, businesses, automobiles, and homes. The harbor ran brown until summer. Local residents brought a class-action lawsuit (one of the first held in Massachusetts) against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which had bought Purity Distilling in 1917. In spite of the company's attempts to claim that the tank had been blown up by anarchists, it ultimately paid out $600,000 in out-of-court settlements (at least $6.6 million in 2005 dollars).

United States Industrial Alcohol, the parent company of Purity, did not rebuild the tank. The property became a yard for the Boston Elevated Railway (predecessor to the MBTA) and is currently the site of a city-owned baseball field.

To this day, people say that molasses left from this disaster still seeps up from some of the streets on a hot day.


The cause of the accident is not known with certainty. One possible explanation is that the tank may have been shoddily constructed, insufficiently tested, and overfilled. Another is that it may have burst due to fermentation occurring within (the carbon dioxide this would have produced would have raised the pressure inside the tank); this would probably have been helped by the unusual increase in the local temperatures that occurred over the previous day: the air temperature rose from 2 °F to 40 °F (−17 °C to 4 °C) over that period. A third possibility is that the rising temperatures alone were enough to cause the collapse.

An inquiry after the disaster revealed that Arthur Jell, who oversaw the construction, neglected basic safety tests, such as filling the tank with water to check for leaks. When filled with molasses, the tank leaked so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks. Local residents collected leaked molasses for their homes.

Accounts relate that given the timing of the accident, the tank may have been overfilled so that the owners could produce as much ethanol (for liquor) as possible before Prohibition came into effect. In fact, the Eighteenth Amendment would not become law for another or so year, and the Volstead Act would not ban the operations of industrial alcohol producers.


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

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