THE BOSTON MOLASSES FLOOD OF 1919
by Tony Sakalauskas
The United States Alcohol Company owned the largest molasses storage tank in Boston. The steel structure was ninety feet in diameter, fifty-two feet in height and was filled to the top with 2.3 million gallons of molasses. Then, shortly before noon on January 15, the vat exploded with a tremendous roar.
Chunks of metal flew everywhere, piercing into people and buildings for hundreds of feet around. One huge chunk of steel smashed through a massive stone pillar supporting an elevated railroad. A piece of the railway sagged and fell. An alert train driver had his locomotive come to a screeching halt just moments before it would have plunged over.
The disappearance of that huge tank sent out a blast of air that pushed people away. But seconds later a counterblast rushed in to fill the vacuum and pulled them back in.
But most of the damage was caused by the molasses itself. It splashed onto city streets in all directions, speeding as fast as a man could run. The molasses smashed freight cars, plowed over homes and warehouses and drowned both people and animals. A three story house was seen soaring through the air as well as a huge chunk of the shattered vat that landed in a park 200 feet away.
Rescuers were bogged down in the stuff and were scarcely able to move as the molasses sucked the boots right off their feet. Trapped horses coudn't be removed so they had to be shot to death. The black sticky stuff filled cellars for blocks around and it took months for the hydraulic syphons to pump it out. Salt water had to be sprayed on cobblestone streets, homes, and other buildings because fresh water would just wash off the stuff. For months afterwards, wherever people walked, their shoes stuck to the goo. Some people even claimed that on a hot day one could still smell molasses even after thirty years.
The distillery was brought to court; 119 different suits of damages were brought against them. The United States Alcohol Company claimed no responsibility for the mess. They accused anarchists of blowing up the molasses tank. There were some bomb-throwing anarchists around at that time, but there was no proof to show that any of them tossed an explosive at this particular structure.
Still, the distillery felt confident that they could win the case because most of the twenty-one people who died and most of the people who were suing them were poor people.
The court proceedings lasted 309 days with some of the hearings not ending until 10 p.m. on some nights. In 1925 the distillery had to pay out more than a million dollars in damages.
What happened? No one knows for sure. They do know that on the day of the explosion the weather was 40 degrees fahrenheit while on the day before it was 2 degrees fahrenheit. It is believed that the sudden increase in temperature caused the molasses to expand and the tank to explode.
And then there were the investigators. They went to city hall and looked at the plans that were filed when the tank was built years earlier. They couldn't find any building plans. The building inspectors said that building plans were not required because the vat was not a building but an industrial device. The industrial department people said that it was not an industrial device but a structure. The tank was built with no plans approved and no government inspectors involved.
Tony Sakalauskas mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org