True history: The Boston molasses tsunami that killed 21 people
Neeve M. Arnell
The molasses tidal wave of 1919 was the result of an explosion at a 50-foot-high steel tank, owned by United States Alcohol Company, which held 2.3 million gallons of molasses. The tank burst 12:40 pm on Wednesday, January 19, 1919, and the contents ultimately coated two city blocks with 14,000 tons of the thick syrup.
One 1983 Smithsonian reporter described the scene that unfolded in the 10 minutes prior:
"At about 12:30, with a sound described as a sort of muffled roar, the giant molasses tank came apart. It seemed to rise and then split, the rivets popping in a way that reminded many ex-soldiers of machine-gun fire. And then a wet, brown hell broke loose, flooding downtown Boston."
And the carnage that came next:
"The great brown wave caught and killed most of the nearby laborers. The fireboat company quarters was splintered. A lorry was blasted right through a wooden fence, and a wagon driver was found later, dead and frozen in his last attitude like a figure from the ashes of Pompeii."
Most of the information about what had caused The Great Molasses Flood was discovered through the numerous lawsuits following the incident. Litigation lasted six years and involved 3,000 witnesses.
Three popular causes came to the fore: an explosion occurred due to fermentation of the molasses, a bomb had been set off (not uncommon at industrial plants in those days), or the four-year-old tank had suffered structural failure (which made United States Industrial Alcohol liable).
Ultimately, the court found that inspections had not been tough enough and the company was held liable for the disaster. Settlements of more than 100 claims were made out of court. Industrial Alcohol paid off between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Survivors of those killed reportedly got about $7,000 per victim.
The viscous muddle and its associated damage was made a distant memory by clean-up-crews who hosed the neighborhood with salt water from fireboats and then covered the streets with sand.
The smell of molasses hung in the air for decades, and whether it's a nostalgic remembrance or not, some say that they can still smell the faint scent of molasses in Boston's North End today.
Sources for this article include:
May 15, 2011