Remembering The Boston Molasses Disaster 100 Years Later

On January 15, the city memorialized the centennial of one of its weirdest tragedies.

By Allyson Larcom

Death-by-molasses: What a way to go. (Art:   Elizabeth Zamets  )

Death-by-molasses: What a way to go. (Art: Elizabeth Zamets)

On January 15, 1919, a 50-foot-tall steel storage tank of hot, fermenting molasses burst in Boston’s North End. The explosion sent out a deluge of the viscous sweetener that covered the historic neighborhood like a sticky flash flood, clogging streets and trapping people indoors. Somewhere between 15- and 40-feet high, the sugar-crested wave it created moved as fast as 35 miles per hour.

Around 2.3 million gallons of molasses poured through the streets of the enclave — which includes Paul Revere’s house and Little Italy. Twenty-one people were killed in what would become known as the Boston Molasses Disaster.

Witnesses remembered hearing the tank exploding, and historians believe it was because it was shoddily made, built with the same brittle steel as the Titanic. Maintained poorly and allowed to deteriorate, it simply split open after only four years of use.

The tank was owned by Purity Distilling Company, a subsidiary of the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA), an alcohol distiller. It was constructed in 1915 and used to store molasses before it was sent to the distillery in Cambridge. The company cut crucial corners as the tank was being built, such as not carrying out necessary structural tests and simply painting over cracks and leaks in its hurry to begin turning a profit. At the time, the North End housed mostly poor, working-class Italian immigrants who didn’t have the power to veto the tank or make any demands of the company. And it seems USIA didn’t particularly care whether locals wanted it there, either.

The aftermath of the 1915 “flood.” ( Boston Public Library )

The aftermath of the 1915 “flood.” (Boston Public Library)

First-person accounts of the Boston Molasses Disaster are as gruesome as they are cartoony. One man recalled being pushed 35-feet into the air by the wave before managing to grab hold of a ladder and pull himself to safety. An elderly woman testified that the flood completely demolished the building where she lived. The Associated Press, which existed even back then, reported that after the flood, “women and girls...waded through the molasses and distributed hot coffee and doughnuts to the firemen, policemen, soldiers, and sailors” there for rescue and cleanup efforts. It took four months for them to recover all the bodies.

“People’s initial reaction is to laugh because it sounds so ridiculous,” engineer Nicole Sharp told Boston.com. But “by the time you get into the nitty-gritty details, it’s like, ‘Man, that would be a terrible way to die.’ ”

Odd as the Boston Molasses Disaster may be, it left a lasting mark not just on the city but on the country, too. It led to the first class-action lawsuit against a major corporation that called on expert witness accounts.The case was historic and changed the very nature of the relationships between the government, corporations, and civilians. Regulations were put into effect to establish new safety standards. USIA was forced to pay $630,000 in settlements — about $10 million in today’s money.

On Tuesday, Jan. 15, the centennial of the disaster, Bostonians gathered around the city to pay their respects on the hundredth anniversary of this bizarre calamity. A handful of events, scattered throughout different neighborhoods but concentrated in the North End, were held throughout the day — some starting as early as 8 a.m. and others ending at midnight.

The moods at each of them varied. Some, like a memorial held at Langone Park in the North End, were somber tributes to those whose lives were lost to the syrupy tide.

“Today we remember an incredible event, a tragic event,” Boston’s Parks Commissioner Christopher Cook said after reading aloud the names of the 21 victims. City officials laid wreaths on the site where the tank once sat, which is now a baseball diamond, after a moment of silence.

Other events, like Model Cafe’s “Remembrance Party” in the neighborhood of Allston, seemed more like an excuse to let loose on a Tuesday. The party featured a variety show with a handful of stand-up comedians, a couple of bands, and a poetry reading. The only thing molasses-related about the party were the molasses-filled baked goods for sale.

So how did residents remember the Boston Molasses Disaster a century after the fact?

“The molasses flood was a fact I threw out during U.S. History class in high school and beyond that, it means very little to me,” said one Allston bargoer, vodka-cranberry in hand. “I think it’s a funny event — I mean, I guess people died, so that makes it a lot less funny. But since then I think that their memory has become mildly humorous.”

Others felt differently.

Model Cafe’s bouncer said, “The molasses disaster means suffering. Like, people dying unnecessarily from molasses? I think it’s a great example of government regulation or lack thereof, and residential zoning, and how that affects people’s lives.”

City lore has it that on hot days in the North End, even 100 years later, you can still smell the molasses. Whether or not that’s true, the phrase “slow as molasses in January” definitely has a different meaning for Bostonians.

 

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