• Nick Charlie Key

The Deadly Tidal Wave Of Molasses


Dawn broke on January 15, 1919, just like every other day. The citizens of Boston rose up out of their beds and started their daily routines, some trudged off to work while others ran errands around town. World War 1 had ended just 2 months prior and spirits were high as the troops returned home and families were getting their lives back on track. Boston was in its heyday and living there was something many people aspired to. No one in the town knew that just after lunchtime on that very day, one of history’s most bizarre tragedies would forever change the landscape of their beautiful town.

The Purity Distilling Company owned a chemicals factory that specialised in the production of Ethanol by the process of fermenting molasses. Now, most of us know molasses as the delicious gooey byproduct of refined sugarcane and a popular ingredient used to make gingerbread and other tasty baked goods. Because of its ability to be converted into industrial grade alcohol it had become big business during World War 1 as it was used in the manufacturing of munitions. The Purity Distilling Company had, just four days earlier, taken possession of a shipment of molasses that had sailed in from Puerto Rico. Four years earlier they had built a gigantic steel tank to store their incoming shipments of molasses and it was into this tank that the Puerto Rican molasses were pumped.

The Molasses Tank In The Background. Date Unknown.

The tank was, like I mentioned, enormous. It stood a full 50 feet tall and measured 90 feet across. From the ship, they pumped enough molasses into the tank to fill 3 and a half olympic sized swimming pools. At its fullest capacity the tank was built to hold 2.5 million gallons of molasses. And, After the Puerto Rican shipment came in, the tank had been filled to just over 2.3 million gallons of the sticky, sugary syrup.

The Company as well as the giant tank were situated on Commercial Street in Boston's North End. This site was specifically chosen because of its proximity to both Boston harbour as well as the nearby railway line in order to make shipments of molasses and ethanol simple and efficient. What this also meant was that they were situated in a lower income part of town, and the factory rubbed shoulders with the poorer and generally more crowded neighbourhoods filled with Italian immigrants. It’s maybe no surprise then that despite the protests of the neighbouring citizens the company was able to rush the plans for the construction of the tank through council thereby shoehorning it into the middle of a bustling neighborhood. Despite the tank being an eyesore, the sickly sweet smell of molasses was an ever present in the lives of those who lived nearby. Very few, if any, of the towns lawmakers ever ventured into this part of town, and because of this, very little was done to ensure the proper construction standards of the tank while it was being built.

Modern downtown Boston with molasses flood area circled.

From the very first time the tank was filled, dark glistening streaks of molasses could be seen dripping through cracks, down the sides of the 50 foot tank. Savvy entrepreneurs began scraping the leaking molasses from the tanks external walls and moulding it around sticks, selling them as primitive style lollipops. Children would climb the towering structure with bowls, collecting as much as they could of the sticky sweetness as it slowly rolled down the outer walls.

The company bosses were alerted to these leaks and they sprung swiftly into action. I’m sure you’re assuming from that last sentence that this meant they were taking steps to fix the cracks in the tank, but no, what they decided to do was simply to paint the outside of the tank brown in order to disguise the leaking molasses and make it less noticeable.

From the very beginning, each of the 29 times the tank was filled, nearby residents told stories of a strange groaning and creaking that could be heard in the dead of night as if metal was slowly being twisted into unnatural shapes. This was in fact, exactly what was happening.

Back to January 15, 1919 and the weather that month had been unseasonably warmer than usual in the days after the Puerto Rican shipment had been pumped into the tank. This was the first time the tank had ever been filled to such a capacity and coupled with the heat, it began a dangerous chain reaction.

Molasses and heat put together starts the fermentation process, which is exactly why it was there in the first place, except it wasn’t meant to start fermenting while still in the tank. As it began bubbling away the pressure inside the tank started to increase, putting more and more strain on the already struggling structure. The tank groaned and creaked and heaved some more until eventually passersby began to hear what, at first, they thought were gunshots.

Unfortunately for anyone close enough to hear it, the sound they were hearing was in fact the tanks rivets popping with such force out of the tank that they embedded themselves in the brickwork of the adjacent buildings. People ducked and ran for cover, unsure of what was happening, but for them it was already too late.

Something had gone terribly wrong and within seconds the steel sides of the tank began to rip themselves apart like a wet paper bag. 2.3 million gallons of molasses cascaded from the shredded tank sending a tidal wave of hot sticky sugar flooding down the streets in a 15 foot high wall.

It is hard to imagine what this must have been like to witness. A thick wall of molasses 3 times the height of a person flooding towards you at over 50km an hour. No-one could even hope to have outrun it. The effects of this surging mass was truly devastating. Buildings were ripped from their foundations and the support girders for a nearby elevated railway were snapped in half like twigs. Multiple homes were smashed in the face of the onrushing wave.

Damage to the Boston Elevated Railway caused by the burst tank and resulting flood.

It caused so much destruction in fact that the property damage alone would have totaled around $100 million in today's money. Unfortunately, that was not the worst of it. The human cost of this tragedy was even more shocking. The wall of sugary syrup moved so quickly and so forcefully that anyone who was caught in its path didn’t stand a chance, including 10-year-old Pasquale Iantosca, who was struck and killed by a train car that had been swept from the train tracks. It knocked people off their feet, slamming them into buildings as it rolled onwards or drowned them in the thick goo. The scene was terrifying but slowly it ground to a halt after running for almost 500 metres. The thick molasses, free from the heat of the tank began to cool as it’s surface area spread, slowing it’s progress and allowing people to get to safety. By the time things had settled down and the firefighters could get to the scene 21 people were dead and more than 150 others were left with serious injuries ranging from deep cuts to fractured skulls and even broken backs. It was an almost apocalyptic scene.

The firefighters, police officers and rescue workers were faced with an incredibly difficult task. Rubble was strewn everywhere, just like in any disaster of this nature but they had never had to face the aftermath of a molasses tidal wave. The viscous nature of the syrup made moving around incredibly difficult especially as in some places they would have to wade through waist deep molasses to reach the victims.

It was a terrible scene, and yet worse was to come. That night as rescue workers toiled, trying to find survivors, winter came back in full force and the temperatures plunged. This meant that the molasses cooled significantly and the bodies of the victims became entombed in the hardened sugar. Frantic rescue workers used saws, pickaxes and chisels to crack the sugar, clear the wreckage and retrieve the bodies. It was a long painstaking effort as the molasses just simply wasn’t going anywhere. Flaminio Gallerani’s body was discovered 11 days after the spill, while the body of Cesare Nicolo, a wagon driver, wouldn’t be found for another four months.

All the while, as the rubble and wreckage was being cleared cleanup crews quickly began to learn that it was not going to be easy to shift the 2 million gallons of molasses. They began to spray the hardened sugar that coated buildings and the streets below with fresh water from the fire truck hoses, but nothing happened. After days and days with no success they decided to try using saltwater. This was an inspired idea as the tiny salt crystals in the water were abrasive enough to cut through the molasses and slowly but surely begin to wash it away and down into the sewers. All in all it took over 80 000 man-hours to complete the cleanup effort.

Investigations into how this tragedy happened began almost immediately with everyone pointing fingers in different directions. The Purity Distilling Company sought to distance themselves from the blame by concocting a story about some local Italian anarchists detonating a bomb that had been strapped to the tank. Judges in the case saw through this story however and soon the real cause of the of the rupture was found to simply have been shoddy craftsmanship. The tank had been built in a hurry and for as cheap as possible by the greedy company directors meaning that an unimaginable number of corners had been cut in the process. To make matters worse, the man who oversaw the construction of the tank wasn’t an engineer or even an architect, in fact, he couldn’t even read a blueprint.

Modern studies have shown that the walls of the tank were far too thin to support the volume of molasses inside and because they had used substandard steel it was only a matter of time before the walls gave way and something like this happened. The steel had been mixed with too little Manganese which meant that it became brittle when subjected to temperature fluctuations, just as the city experienced that winter with the unseasonably warm weather. As it turned out, it was exactly the same type of brittle steel that had been used on the Titanic, which sank seven years before the flood.

It was frankly a miracle that the tank had even lasted for the 4 years leading up to this.

Within days the company had been slapped with 125 lawsuits from families who had lost their homes and their loved ones in the disaster. An enormous legal battle ensued with both sides not prepared to give up any ground to the other.

It took the presiding Judge, a man named Ogden, almost 6 years to hear the full testimonies of the nearly 3000 witnesses. Once he was finished and was satisfied that he had heard enough he wrote his conclusion in a thick report. He concluded that the company's sabotage theory was nonsense and that it was in fact squarely their fault for the woeful construction of the tank. As part of his findings he discovered that instead of inspecting the tank and filling it with water first to test it for flaws, the company had ignored all the warning signs, including the groaning noises every time it was filled.

There had also been obvious cracks forming and when a laborer had brought shards of steel from the tank’s walls into the treasurer’s office as evidence of the potential danger, he was met with the reply, ‘I don’t know what you want me to do. The tank still stands.’”

Eventually $630,000 was paid to the families of the victims, and this case became pivotal in helping to change the laws concerning safety standards in construction.

Even now, 100 years later, on the very warm days in the city of Boston, locals say you can still smell the sweet aroma of molasses wafting through the streets.


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